If it seems like the Vikings' passing game is stretching the field more often, there is a reason for that: it is.
The insertion of Matt Cassel has helped, but whether it has been Christian Ponder or Cassel putting the ball in the air, the Vikings have found far more success with their deep passing game in 2013.
Last year, the Vikings had 27 pass plays that went 20 yards or more, which is how they measure explosive plays in the passing game. This year, Ponder has that many by himself on 239 attempts. Last year, it took him 483 attempts to get 27 plays to go 20 yards or more.
Cassel has been slightly more proficient in that category. In 194 attempts, he has 22 explosive pass plays.
That came to the forefront against the Philadelphia Eagles. With Adrian Peterson out with injury and third-string running back Matt Asiata filling in, Cassel had seven pass plays go 20 yards or more and another three that went 15 or more.
"Some of those plays he made in that ballgame against Philadelphia, it was good to see," head coach Leslie Frazier said about the deep passing game. "There were some plays out there that we need to take advantage of because of the way we run the ball. Even though we didn't get the kind of yards we probably would have gotten with Adrian, we did run the ball well enough that they had to respect the run game so it opened up some things down the field. And Matt made some big-time plays down the field, which resulted in a great day from a points standpoint. You'd like to see the quarterback stand in the pocket, be strong, be confident, poised and make those throws that he made. It makes our offense and our team so much better."
The Vikings scored 48 points against the Eagles, the most since scoring 50 in December 1998. Cassel said he saw big offensive potential when he joined the team in March.
"There's no doubt. I think you look across the board from us offensively, we've got a lot of weapons on the outside," he said. "We've got some good tight ends. Our offensive line is a veteran offensive line that has played together for a few years, and then you've got your great running back situation here. So, when I signed here, there's no doubt that came into play."
Taking it a step further, or 10 yards further, the Vikings have also shown dramatic improvement there.
Last year, Ponder had seven pass plays that went 30 yards or more. This year? He has nine passes of 30 yards or more and Cassel has eight.
Compared to the rest of the league, the Vikings are faring well. They are ranked eighth with 52 pass plays of 20-plus yards (Philadelphia leads the league with 71) and they are tied for fourth for the most big plays (pass and run) of 20 yards or more with 65.
After nine seasons in the league and 66 starts in the regular season, Cassel simply has the look of a quarterback comfortable in the pocket.
"You've got 300-pound men trying to rip your head off every play, so I don't think you ever really get used to it or comfortable," he said. "But at the same time, I think you just learn that as long as you go through your progressions and make sure that you stay steady in the pocket and try to deliver the ball, that's part of our job. That's part of our duty is you know you're going to take hits. That's why we're lucky enough to wear red shirts during the week and then on game day that's just part of the job description. You go out there and you've got to take some hits every now and then. But most of the day you hopefully stay upright."
To date, Ponder has taken 27 sacks. Cassel has taken only nine.
In three of the four games Cassel has started, the Vikings have scored 26 points or more, with an additional 10-point clunker against the Carolina Panthers (who have the second-ranked defense) as his major blemish.
Ultimately, it's about wins and Cassel has provided those at a higher rate than Ponder, but explosive plays throughout a game help and Cassel has been able to deliver those in the passing game, at no point more obvious than last week against Philadelphia.
"Guys did a tremendous job of just running to get open and the offensive line gave us some time," Cassel said. "I was able to see the field well throughout the game. I was understanding what we were trying to get done and accomplish with those plays and I think that it just all kind of came together for us."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Vikings find explosive passing game in 2013
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