Ponder has much to prove on deep passes

Christian Ponder is getting the full support of his coaching staff and general manager, but film analysts and consumers of metrics say that he has to drastically improve his deep passing game.

The Minnesota Vikings coaching staff (and their players) consistently point to an arrow they perceive to be going up when it comes to quarterback Christian Ponder's development. That appeared to be true in the final four games of the season, but the statistics say there is still a long way for Ponder to go.

Ron Jaworski, the respected NFL Films analyst and former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, ranked Ponder No. 27 among the expected starting quarterbacks in the NFL in 2013.

"Ponder had an uneven 2012 season, but overall I saw gradual and steady improvement. The arrow is pointing upward as Ponder begins his third season as the Vikings starter," Jaworski said for his ranking on ESPN.

Inside the organization, it is full support for Ponder, but he still has plenty of doubters outside the team and coaching staff.

ESPN's Adam Schefter has posted on Twitter twice that veteran backup Matt Cassel could challenge for the starting role, but coaches stand firmly behind Ponder and have told Cassel as much. Jaworski, however, relies mostly on his own film study to draw his conclusions.

"Ponder needs to make significant improvements as a pocket passer. Surprisingly, with Adrian Peterson in the backfield, he was not efficient off play-action. Ponder also had a tendency to be a beat late with his throws. At this point, he doesn't see the whole field with clarity and that led to too many throws into the teeth of the coverage," Jaworski said in his analysis.

"And he must execute versus the blitz much better than he did in 2012. You know what statistic really bothered me? Ponder had only 28 completions of 20 yards or more – by far the fewest of any 16-game starter. I saw one in Week 17 that I really liked. It was a shot play, first-and-10 play-action out of base personnel."

Ponder had only a 77.1 passer rating when pressured, according to the statistical analysis site Pro Football Focus, while maintaining a 91 rating without pressure.

Football Outsiders, another independent metrics site, addressed the issue of deep passing success, pointing out that Ponder had a 10.7 percent DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which takes into account the situation and compares it to the league average) on passes traveling at least 16 yards downfield while pointing out the seasonal league average is usually between 45 and 65 percent.

Still, Ponder ranked ahead of the Oakland's Matt Flynn (32nd), Tennessee's Jake Locker (31st), Buffalo's Kevin Kolb (30th), Jacksonville's Chad Henne (29th) and the Jet's Mark Sanchez in Jaworski's ranking.

Ponder ranked 21st in passer rating last year, but his 6.92-yard average length per pass ranked last among the top-32 rated quarterbacks and his average gain of 6.08 yards ranked 31st.

He ranked 30th, according to Pro Football Reference, with a 4.99 Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt, a statistic that figures sacks into the equation.

"Ponder fits the profile so many are now talking about: the athletic movement quarterback who can beat you with his legs. Ponder is an opportunity runner, and he's shown the ability to burn some of the best defenses in the league," Jaworski said.

Ponder finished ninth among quarterbacks with at least 10 starts with his 4.22 yards per rushing attempt.

"Overall, I like Ponder's skillset. He has plus arm strength with the ability to make every single throw. The Vikings have now provided Ponder with more weapons on the outside," Jaworski said. "2013 is an important season for the third-year quarterback. It's time to play more consistently from the pocket. If Ponder does that, he could well be in my top 20 next year."

His ability to perform under pressure and stretch the field will be keys to making that jump.

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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