After four straight games without an interception, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder now has a three-game streak with two interceptions per game.
The latest setback was throwing two interceptions in the first half during Sunday's 21-14 win, one that led to an Arizona Cardinals touchdown and another that could have led to a field goal at the end of the first half, but Jay Feely pushed his 47-yard attempt.
"I'm trying to do too many things. I'm getting out of the pocket and trying to force it to happen. I have to be a lot smarter and make better decisions for sure," Ponder said after throwing his sixth interception of the season.
His first against the Cardinals came at the start of the second quarter when he avoided pressure up the middle and rolled to his right. He tried to connect with one of his favorite targets, tight end Kyle Rudolph, but the pass was behind his big target and linebacker Paris Lenon came away with the interception. Four plays later, the Cardinals tied the game 7-7.
"It's not a bad thing (to throw the ball out of bounds) when you get flushed out of the pocket, and more occasions like that will help us in those moments when he gets flushed out of bounds," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said.
Ponder said he was trying to throw the ball out of bounds on his second interception. On that play, too, he was flushed from the pocket, rolled to his left and was hit by linebacker O'Brian Schofield as he released the ball. The pass fluttered and linebacker Sam Acho came away with the interception with five seconds left in the half. Feely's missed field goal helped Ponder avoid having the Cardinals turn his interceptions into 10 points off turnovers.
But the fact that both of his interceptions came when he was on the run was a testament to an impressive Cardinals defense that brings relentless pressure.
"They probably brought (blitzes) about 80 percent of the time. They brought them left and right. It's something we prepare for, but they're a great defense," rookie left tackle Matt Kalil said.
"For this team, they ran a lot of 3-4. They also ran a lot of four-man fronts to mix it up a little bit. Each team comes with a little different blitzing package each week. It's just all about game plan for that week."
The Vikings knew what they were up against with Arizona's game plan. They have faced plenty of 3-4 defenses already this season, but perhaps none has been as weighted toward the linebackers getting pressure as the Cardinals' scheme.
Arizona entered the game with 19 sacks, but 15 of them had come from the linebacker corps. Daryl Washington and Schofield had four each, Acho had three and Quetin Groves and Lenon each had two. Washington added two more against the Vikings, and defensive tackle Nick Eason had the Cardinals' other sack.
"It is tough. They do a lot of different things. Very different than what you see normally," said Ponder, who added it was probably as quickly as he has seen pressure on a consistent basis.
"They were bringing it every down and they were doing a good job of keeping the pressure on and we knew that. We knew that going into this thing, that they were going to be a high-pressure defense."
Ponder ended up completing only 8 of 17 passes for 58 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. His 35.5 passer rating was easily his worst of the season (the next on that list was more than double that). It was also the worst of his career when he has attempted more than 10 passes.
That was a major part of the Vikings having eight of their 12 drives go three or fewer plays. Only their second-quarter touchdown drive went more than five plays.
"We just couldn't find a pace, couldn't get into a rhythm, and a lot of that is my fault. I have to step up and play better," Ponder said.
Last week, Ponder talk about his footwork being an issue on his interceptions and his general inaccuracy of late. He has also been appearing on the injury report with a knee injury, although he has been listed as a full participant in practices the last two weeks.
He acknowledged that the knee injury "has been around for a little bit," but said it didn't affect him.
Still, Ponder has played the last two weeks with a large pad on his right knee, the one that he plants on his throws.
Frazier said he believes Ponder needs to make better decisions and throw the ball away sooner when flushed from the pocket and he is unable to find any open receivers, but, despite the offensive struggles in the second half, Frazier believes Ponder can turn it around.
"We got stifled in that second half, but Christian is going to be fine," Frazier said. "We'll go back, we'll look at the tape and find out what we have to do to make the corrections that are necessary and he'll keep improving. It's just still part of the process with all of our players."
Ponder immediately acknowledged his struggles when stepping to the podium for his post-game interview, but also felt fortunate to escape with a win.
"It's a good thing to be disappointed when you're 5-2," he said. "Obviously as an offense, especially me, we didn't perform as well as we should have."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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