Ponder under pressure a mixed bag for Vikings

The Vikings are hoping a bye-week self-scout can help improve their passing offense. Christian Ponder entered the bye feeling better about his performance after a rough stretch, but how he performs under pressure is still a story being developed. What are the measurements used to evaluate that and what did he, Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman say about it?

If the Vikings are to survive a gauntlet of a schedule the next six weeks, getting their passing offense operating more efficiently more consistently will be a top priority between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. If they can do that, they might stand a better chance at playing in the "second season" of the playoffs for the first time since Brett Favre's first season in Minnesota.

The Vikings returned to work Monday with the 20th-ranked offense, and it wasn't Adrian Peterson and his rushing comrades that were holding back the offense. Minnesota ranks third in the NFL in rushing offense but only two spots away from last place in passing offense.

To that end, Vikings coaches spent the bye looking for solutions to improved play on defense and special teams, but offense was obviously a focus. Their conclusion: No drastic changes were needed, but improved play in a few key areas was stressed as players returned to practice Monday.

"I don't think we're changing anything. (Coaches) just talked about what we needed to work on and the big thing is our turnover differential – I think we're 23rd in the league," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "And our red zone – I think we're 17th in the league at 53 percent. Obviously, there's two things that we've got to work on, especially with our schedule stacked up. There's things we have to perform at a high level on."

Indeed, the Vikings are 23rd in the league at minus-4 in turnover differential, and they are 17th in the red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 51.5 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line.
Cleary, those were two of the talking points from Monday's post-bye reunion between coaches and players.

Frazier said the coach's self-scout was just further proof of how defenses are approaching the Vikings as the season has evolved.

"You get a chance to see how people are playing you as the season went on … and some of the adjustments that we need to make to counter some of the things that they're doing," Frazier said. "That's probably the most beneficial part of it to see how teams hone in on certain things that we do."

How the Vikings respond on offense will fall mainly on Ponder's shoulders, and his arm. But some of the key factors in quarterback success, according to general manager Rick Spielman, are how Ponder handles pressure.

"I've looked at this: quarterbacks and how they sometimes perform in the clutch situations. Because I think that defines a quarterback," Spielman said. "Or in situations where they have struggled but the mental part of it – were they able to get out of that? And there are quarterbacks who have that high quarterback rating, but if you look at pressure situations in the games, sometimes their ratings go down. And guys who have a lower quarterback rating, their rating rises in those pressure situations. So those are the things you're trying to look at when you're measuring a quarterback."

For Ponder, it has been a mixed bag in those "clutch" situations.

He is 19th in overall passer rating at 85.2, hitting on 206 of 316 passes for 2,027 yards, 12 TDs and eight interceptions. Ponder's rating improves slightly, to 88.9, in the fourth quarter, ranking 15th.

But his rating actually drops on third downs, as he has completed only 60.9 percent of his passes then, with five TDs and six interceptions for a 69.9 rating. Only two quarterbacks are worse than Ponder throwing interceptions on third down. Ponder is throwing interceptions 6.5 percent of the time on third down, while Miami rookie Ryan Tannehill is at 6.7 percent and San Diego veteran Philip Rivers is at 8.2.

Spielman said he measure a quarterback's clutch performance in seven different categories – third-down and two-minute situations being a couple of factors.

Ponder knows that the Vikings need to perform better in the red zone and on third downs, but he didn't give specifics on what they need to do to improve in those situations.

"It's just execution. We've just got to keep working on it and finding ways to make it happen," Ponder said. "When we look back at the film and what we did wrong, it just goes back to execution and getting through my reads quicker and being able to check the ball down and not forcing things outside. (We're) just going to have a lot to work on this week."

One of the things Spielman and Frazier both appreciate about Ponder is his ability to bounce back from poor performances and not let it hinder him in proceeding games.

After being the last starting quarterback to throw an interception and having a strong four games to start the season, Ponder started to fall on hard times. He threw six interceptions in the next three games, and during a three-game stretch in October and November he had two games in which he failed to eclipse even 65 yards passing.

"Those are the signs that you're looking at, not only from his physical ability, but how he handles the pressure at that position from the mental standpoint, too," Spielman said.

"You have to have stuff roll off your back at that position, just like a head coach or general manager. You know there's going to be – the praises come with that position, but the heavy criticisms come with that position, too. But you have to have the mental makeup to be able to handle all of that."

With the Vikings losing three of four games and essentially feeling their last game before the bye, against the Detroit Lions, was a must-win situation, Ponder responded. He threw for 221 yards, two touchdowns and avoided an interception for the first time in six games. It was also his first game with a passer rating exceeding 100 (114.2) since Week 2 of the season.

If the Vikings' self-scout during the bye week can put Ponder and the passing offense in a more productive mode during the six-game stretch to end the season, it could give them a chance to surprise nearly everyone on the outside and earn a postseason berth.

"I think it will benefit us if we can implement some of the things that we saw as a staff that we can impart on our players," Frazier said. "And then it's just a matter of our going out on the practice field and making the necessary improvements."


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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Their conclusion: No drastic changes were needed, but improved play in a few key areas was stressed as players returned to practice Monday. \"I don't think we're changing anything. (Coaches) just talked about what we needed to work on and the big thing is our turnover differential – I think we're 23rd in the league,\" quarterback Christian Ponder said. \"And our red zone – I think we're 17th in the league at 53 percent. Obviously, there's two things that we've got to work on, especially with our schedule stacked up. There's things we have to perform at a high level on.\" Indeed, the Vikings are 23rd in the league at minus-4 in turnover differential, and they are 17th in the red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 51.5 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. Cleary, those were two of the talking points from Monday's post-bye reunion between coaches and players. Frazier said the coach's self-scout was just further proof of how defenses are approaching the Vikings as the season has evolved. \"You get a chance to see how people are playing you as the season went on … and some of the adjustments that we need to make to counter some of the things that they're doing,\" Frazier said. \"That's probably the most beneficial part of it to see how teams hone in on certain things that we do.\" How the Vikings respond on offense will fall mainly on Ponder's shoulders, and his arm. But some of the key factors in quarterback success, according to general manager Rick Spielman, are how Ponder handles pressure. \"I've looked at this: quarterbacks and how they sometimes perform in the clutch situations. Because I think that defines a quarterback,\" Spielman said. \"Or in situations where they have struggled but the mental part of it – were they able to get out of that? And there are quarterbacks who have that high quarterback rating, but if you look at pressure situations in the games, sometimes their ratings go down. And guys who have a lower quarterback rating, their rating rises in those pressure situations. So those are the things you're trying to look at when you're measuring a quarterback.\" For Ponder, it has been a mixed bag in those \"clutch\" situations. He is 19th in overall passer rating at 85.2, hitting on 206 of 316 passes for 2,027 yards, 12 TDs and eight interceptions. Ponder's rating improves slightly, to 88.9, in the fourth quarter, ranking 15th. But his rating actually drops on third downs, as he has completed only 60.9 percent of his passes then, with five TDs and six interceptions for a 69.9 rating. Only two quarterbacks are worse than Ponder throwing interceptions on third down. Ponder is throwing interceptions 6.5 percent of the time on third down, while Miami rookie Ryan Tannehill is at 6.7 percent and San Diego veteran Philip Rivers is at 8.2. Spielman said he measure a quarterback's clutch performance in seven different categories – third-down and two-minute situations being a couple of factors. Ponder knows that the Vikings need to perform better in the red zone and on third downs, but he didn't give specifics on what they need to do to improve in those situations. \"It's just execution. We've just got to keep working on it and finding ways to make it happen,\" Ponder said. \"When we look back at the film and what we did wrong, it just goes back to execution and getting through my reads quicker and being able to check the ball down and not forcing things outside. 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