Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Through his first four starts as an NFL quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater has been blitzed on 29.9 percent of his dropbacks, which actually is a relatively small percentage when compared to the experiences of other recent rookie quarterbacks. Of the 53 quarterbacks who have made their first four career starts since 2008, 42 of them were blitzed more frequently than Bridgewater has been so far, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

(The bottom name on that list, if you're wondering, is the quarterback who could be opposing Bridgewater this weekend: Washington's Robert Griffin III, at just 20.1 percent in his first four starts in 2012. The top name on the list? That'd be Bridgewater's backup, Christian Ponder, who saw blitzes 53.3 percent of the time in his first four starts in 2011.)

Considering how much teams typically look to put heat on a rookie quarterback, the relatively small number of blitzes could be out of deference to Bridgewater's mobility or a reaction to the success he had when blitzed in college. His 53.5 completion percentage against extra pressure was the best in his draft class and the third best of any FBS quarterback last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. (To be fair, the lack of blitzes could also be a statement from defensive coordinators that they'll be able to beat a suspect offensive line and get to Bridgewater with standard pressure -- which, so far, has been true.)

Whatever the reason for the lack of blitzes, it's likely to be irrelevant when the Redskins come to town.

Only one NFL team has blitzed more frequently than Washington this season -- the Redskins have rushed five or more 42.4 percent of the time this season -- and the Vikings' rookie quarterback will have plenty of work in front of him to decipher and defeat the Redskins' pressure packages this weekend. The Redskins showed the whole country how relentless they can be on Monday night, when they got all five of their sacks on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo off blitzes on their way to an overtime upset of Dallas on "Monday Night Football."

"They do a great job," coach Mike Zimmer said. "[Redskins defensive coordinator] Jim Haslett has always done a good job with his blitz package. He’s got a lot of overload, a lot of trap blitzes and so we’ll have to do a good job with our protections."

Bridgewater's strength against the blitz was what attracted the Vikings to him in the draft; he's generally good about keeping his eyes downfield in the midst of a pass rush and knows his options when a defense brings extra pressure. As both Zimmer and Ponder pointed out, the Vikings' quarterbacks saw so many unusual blitz looks from the Vikings' defense during training camp that Bridgewater has already been exposed to much of what he'll likely see on Sunday. Still, he'll have to translate it to game speed against a team that doesn't figure to dial down its blitz package for anyone.

"You don't see a lot of exotic looks in college," Ponder said. "As a rookie, you're probably going to get pressured more. They're going to try to make you make quick decisions, get the ball out of your hands and test you."

Bridgewater has talked about needing to work through his progressions quicker and not overthink his options, and while that doesn't always mean checking down to a short pass, the rookie will be more effective the quicker he can identify soft spots in coverage behind the Redskins' blitzes on Sunday. Washington has been burned on some blitzes this season -- opponents have thrown six TDs to one interception when the Redskins blitz this season -- and some options could be there for Bridgewater if he can locate them quickly.

"They’re able to do different things to cause havoc in your pass protection schemes," he said. "But I’m pretty sure we’re going to put together a scheme that’s going to allow us to play fast and think less."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Life is a lot different for Matt Cassel these days than it was about two months ago. Instead of taking starter's snaps in the Minnesota Vikings' practices and preparing for their upcoming opponent, he's doing special projects for coach Mike Zimmer and helping Teddy Bridgewater get ready to play. His physical tasks have shifted from withstanding hits from oncoming linebackers to the twin aims of doing upper body work and trying to manage everyday tasks on a nifty knee scooter that allows him to keep weight off his broken left foot without using crutches.

Matt Cassel
Ed Zurga/Associated PressWhile Matt Cassel's return to playing football will take a few more months, the Vikings QB tries to exercise patience as he rehabs a broken foot.
The devices are handy, Cassel said, except for one problem: "They don't go up stairs."

And by the time Cassel returns from his injury in 2015, he'll likely be confronted with the reality that the Vikings' quarterback job now belongs to Bridgewater on a permanent basis. Yet, a quarterback whose career arc includes a number of hairpin turns is trying to keep his injury in perspective.

"Any time you get something taken away -- and especially at your job -- it's always difficult," Cassel said. "But at the same time, I'm staying involved. I'm coming in every single day. I've been in meetings every day. That part's kept my morale high. I've had a little extra time with the family, and that's been great, but you definitely miss the competitive process of being out there every single day."

Cassel, who broke his foot on Sept. 21 against the New Orleans Saints, said he'll be able to start walking in about two weeks and throwing soon after that. The timetable for him to make a full recovery was about 12 weeks, and he said there are no concerns about lingering problems with his foot -- he didn't have a Lisfranc injury, he said, and he won't have any permanent hardware in his foot, once the wires that are currently holding his bones in place are removed.

"I've actually got them coming out of my foot, so for Halloween, I think it'd be a pretty good look," Cassel said. "Two of the bones had pretty good breaks in them, so they put three (wires) in there. They're actually coming out the bottom of my foot, so my daughters are having a lot of fun with that."

The broken foot is the first season-ending injury Cassel's had, and he's trying to stay as connected to the team as he can. Working with Bridgewater -- with whom Cassel already had a good relationship -- has helped that process; Cassel said he's continued to make Bridgewater aware of matchups he should keep in mind on Sundays, and added he watches games on TV with a keen interest in making sure Bridgewater goes to the right place with the ball.

"I think Teddy's done a tremendous job in a difficult situation," Cassel said. "Last week was an outstanding performance by him, especially those big plays he made down the stretch. That's something I think you're going to see a lot out of Teddy. He's still growing. He's 21 years old. He's a rookie. He's been shoved in the lineup, and he's done a great job."

Cassel said he's having both Bridgewater and Christian Ponder over for tacos on Thursday night, when Louisville takes on Florida State. Is that to calm any rising tensions between the quarterbacks as their alma maters face off?

"I just want to make sure it happens in front of me," Cassel joked. As connected as he's tried to stay to the Vikings' other quarterbacks, it only makes sense."It was definitely crushing at first, especially after all the hard work that went into this offseason -- winning the job, and then having it all taken away from you with an injury," Cassel said. "But you deal with it. How can you contribute, make these guys better and still have a role on the team?"
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In a year where unforeseen circumstances have led the Minnesota Vikings to turn to a number of rookies sooner than they'd planned, third-round pick Scott Crichton's name might be the most prominent on the team's inactive list each Sunday. Crichton played eight snaps in the first game of the season against St. Louis, registering one tackle in the Vikings' 34-7 win. Since then, he hasn't seen the field, as the Vikings have elected to dress three defensive ends on Sundays and use Corey Wootton as the only backup for Everson Griffen and Brian Robison.

That could change on Sunday, as Wootton nurses a lower back injury that kept him out of practice on Wednesday. Coach Mike Zimmer said the Oregon State product "has been close to being active" several times, adding several of the players who became key pieces of his Bengals defenses (Geno Atkins, Dre Kirkpatrick) didn't see much playing time as rookies.

Crichton, who didn't join the Vikings until he finished school in June and struggled in the preseason, said he's spent time talking with the Vikings' three veteran ends -- Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Wootton -- about what they've done to be effective in the NFL, but "the main thing is just watching them, how they do things. It's worked for them, so I feel like it'll work for me, too."

He left school a year early in large part to support his parents; his mother, Malama, worked two jobs while Scott was growing up, while his father Lucky had to have his leg amputated after a cut became infected. Scouts regarded Crichton as raw, and the Vikings drafted him knowing he'd have to spend time developing in the NFL. His time to get back on the field might not be far off.

"They probably don't see enough [to put me on the field yet]," Crichton said. "I've just got to do everything right from this point on, and keep my head up. I know my time will come."

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It seemed as though Christian and Samantha Ponder were trying to stay anonymous when they went to the managers of a Lululemon store in the Twin Cities earlier this month, offering to buy some clothes for a grieving family they'd just met.

According to this story from WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, Justin Robbins -- who took his two daughters to the store in an effort to cheer them up after their mother, Maggie, was killed in a car accident earlier this month -- had to press store managers for several minutes to find out why his girls were suddenly allowed to buy whatever they wanted from the store. The managers had initially told Robbins they wanted to buy his girls some clothes, and after a while, Robbins found out the Ponders had offered to foot the bill after meeting the family and hearing their story.

"We really, really want to thank the Ponders and what a great man. Samantha is a great person and Christian is a great man,” Robbins told WCCO. “It was a great day, it really helped us out. We really appreciate the Ponders for doing that for us.”

There's been plenty said about Ponder's travails as a quarterback. None of it is relevant here. After a stretch of ugly off-the-field headlines, both around the league and in Minnesota, the story is a little reminder there are plenty of thoughtful, genuine people in the league. Ponder has always handled himself with class off the field, and both he and his wife are getting lots of accolades for their kindness this morning, even if they weren't looking for it. Give them credit for using their platform to brighten the day of a family trying to recover from a tragedy.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Each week he is asked about his lack of touches in the Minnesota Vikings' offense, second-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson continues a variation on the same theme -- that he's not going to coaches and demanding the ball, and that he hasn't earned the right to raise a fuss yet.

On Thursday, Patterson said he's "not a drama queen;" he recalled how he successfully lobbied for the ball at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College and joked he might have to open his mouth more if things don't change. Still, he remained largely deferential to the coaching staff, saying he "trusts everything that's going on in this offense and this organization."

The problem for Patterson is that while the end result since Week 1 has been consistent, the means to fix the problem aren't so simple. Since his dynamic regular-season debut, in which he carried three times for 102 yards and caught another three passes for 26 yards, Patterson has played with three different starting quarterbacks, seen defenses shift more attention toward him with Adrian Peterson gone and watched teams take his running opportunities away with extra defenders on the perimeter. The end result has been meager; 12 catches for 163 yards in the last four games, and only one rushing attempt that went for a loss of seven yards.

The Vikings continue to look for ways to involve Patterson, offensive coordinator Norv Turner said, though it isn't the chief goal of their offense.

"You want to get all your guys involved," Turner said. "I look back to two weeks ago, when Atlanta was very concerned and aware of Cordarrelle. They were concentrating on him a great deal. Jarius (Wright) had his best day, and obviously Teddy (Bridgewater) had a great day. To me, those things come around. There's things we've got in every week for Cordarrelle, and we're anxious to get him more involved."

One factor that could help Patterson is the return of Bridgewater at quarterback. There were several plays in last Thursday's loss to the Green Bay Packers where Patterson was open, but quarterback Christian Ponder didn't get him the ball. Perhaps the most notable was on a second-quarter play where Patterson had plenty of room on a crossing route underneath the Packers' zone coverage, but Ponder let Patterson run by, pulled the ball down and took off, despite the fact the closest defender to him was double-teamed.

Ponder targeted receivers more than 10 yards downfield just 10 times last Thursday night, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and eight of those throws came in the second half, when the game was out of reach. Bridgewater, on the other hand, is 9 of 13 on such throws to receivers this season and hit Patterson for 14, 16 and 22 yards in the win over Atlanta.

"He made a big play in the drive we were down by 1," Turner said. "He got single coverage, he beat the corner and he got us down (near) the red zone. I think you have to take advantage of the opportunities you have, when you get singled up or the play that's developed comes to you."

Vikings coaches have been pleased with Patterson's work habits, and coach Mike Zimmer said after last week's game he saw some progress in Patterson as a receiver, even when the opportunities didn't come to him. The task for Patterson will be producing, and staying patient, when teams are rolling defenders his way.

"After the first game, he got a lot of attention," Turner said. "When we started moving him back in the backfield, people really got wide, and the runs he had are perimeter runs. But like I said, those things tend to come back around."
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Through five games of the 2014 season, the Minnesota Vikings certainly have absorbed more than their fair share of injuries: three starting quarterbacks in less than a month, season-ending injuries to guard Brandon Fusco and quarterback Matt Cassel, surgery for Kyle Rudolph and the end of a 90-game consecutive starting streak for Chad Greenway. The Vikings have also dealt with ailments to Josh Robinson, Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes, sent Harrison Smith to get a MRI on his ankle last Friday, and of course, they're without Adrian Peterson while he deals with his child abuse case in Texas.

But as the Vikings prepare to face the Detroit Lions on Sunday, with Teddy Bridgewater back at quarterback, they might benefit from another team's injury misfortune.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell said on Monday he's "strongly considering" sitting receiverCalvin Johnson this week, after the four-time Pro Bowler re-injured his right ankle in a loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Running back Reggie Bush is also dealing with his own ankle injury, according to ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein, and running back Joique Bell has to clear the league's concussion protocol to return on Sunday.

The Vikings know all too well what it's like to adjust their offense after the loss of their top playmaker, and while the Lions had to play without Johnson for two games last year, his absence certainly would affect them on Sunday, especially if Bush isn't completely healthy. The Vikings will have to protect Bridgewater as he returns from a sprained ankle against the Lions' disruptive front four, but as their defense tries to recover from a 42-10 pounding last Thursday in Green Bay, not having to account for Johnson would help.

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Assuming Teddy Bridgewater makes his return this week, it's difficult to place much lasting significance on the Minnesota Vikings' offensive performance in a 42-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night. The Vikings' productivity was stultified to such a great degree by quarterback Christian Ponder that some of the Vikings' problems might get better just with a change at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsVikings QB Christian Ponder suffered through six sacks in Thursday night's game at Green Bay.
Ponder said he felt confident about the Vikings' game plan on Thursday, but the performance he gave that night looked all too similar to his worst games as a starter. He missed a handful of easy throws, delivered late to his receivers and again was too quick to leave the pocket at the first sign of pressure -- even taking off on one second-quarter play when the closest defender to him was being blocked by running back Matt Asiata and tackle Matt Kalil. Ponder hit just 12 of his 25 passes targeted for receivers, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and he averaged just 5.2 yards per attempt on those completions, taking away any semblance of the deep passing game the Vikings established under Bridgewater the week before.

The Vikings, though, showed some other issues on offense that they'll have to resolve no matter who they have at quarterback. We'll take a look at a few of those issues after a film review of Thursday's game:

  • Ponder was pressured on 19 of his 59 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and hit just three of his 12 passes in those situations. The quarterback contributed to some of the pressures by holding the ball too long, but the Packers' frequent blitz packages (on 25 of 53 dropbacks) caused issues for the Vikings' offensive line. The Vikings' interior linemen had plenty of trouble with Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels, who has emerged into a disruptive force in his third season. Daniels was credited with 1.5 sacks, and one came after Clay Matthews' initial pressure around Kalil opened up room for the tackle. Daniels and former Vikings tackle Letroy Guion -- who said he wanted to prove something to his old team -- combined for three of the Packers' six sacks, and the Packers got pressure from other sources, too; defensive end Datone Jones beat Phil Loadholt to trigger a holding penalty on the Vikings' first drive, and cornerback Casey Hayward drilled Ponder after getting by Loadholt untouched on a blitz.

  • Cordarrelle Patterson was targeted just four times, catching two passes for eight yards. Patterson might have been able to turn a six-yard screen into a big gain had Greg Jennings been able to hold his block a split-second longer, and he was open on a crossing route on the aforementioned play where Ponder took off while Kalil and Asiata blocked a defender. Both Patterson and Jennings were open downfield several times, but Patterson still had trouble getting off press coverage, particularly when Tramon Williams jammed him, and the Vikings only involved him in the running game once, faking a handoff to him on their first play.

  • Eighty-four of the Vikings' 111 rushing yards came in the shotgun, as the Packers loaded up against the run when the Vikings put Ponder under center or had fullback Jerome Felton on the field. The Vikings were able to resolve the problem by motioning Felton in from a wideout position several times, and they also found some success on shotgun draw plays, running eight of them for 50 yards. Especially as Bridgewater returns, shotgun runs will likely be a big part of the offense.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Greg Jennings has now made two trips back to Lambeau Field with the Minnesota Vikings. The first one came in a tie last November, in which Jennings caught just two passes from Christian Ponder for 29 yards. The second one was probably even more frustrating.

Jennings was targeted with five passes from Ponder, who this year was making a spot start for the injured Teddy Bridgewater, but Ponder could only connect with the receiver on two, for a total of 31 yards. And now, Jennings has a 0-2-1 record against his former team, thanks to a 42-10 loss on Thursday night.

"Disappointing. Very, very disappointing. Very, very, very disappointing," he said. "They have a good team over there. A lot of great players and they outperformed us, they outplayed us."

It's no secret that Jennings hasn't produced on the field with Ponder, whom the receiver said had "all the tools" to be a successful NFL quarterback, since he signed his five-year, $45 million deal with Minnesota last March. His best numbers last season came with Matt Cassel, and he's been at his most productive this year with Bridgewater, who should return to the starting lineup next week. But Jennings betrayed a bit of frustration with the passing game in his postgame comments on Thursday.

"I can only do my part. That's the one thing that always sucks about playing receiver; you can't throw yourself the ball," Jennings said. "You can't do things for yourself. You have to play the scheme and hope you can make an impact some way. It's just disappointing, it is disappointing. Just like every guy in this locker room, I want to beat this team. Is there a little bit more that kind of tries to creep up in there? A little bit more weight and it all comes in, putting everything into this one? Absolutely. But the end result is to still win the ball game, and we didn't do that.

"I just find that place and I try to continue to encourage guys and stay positive. If I allow myself to get frustrated and that shows, we can't have that. It's not about me, it's not about one individual, it's about the team. Would I love more opportunities? Absolutely. Would I love to be targeted 20 times a game? Yes. But that's not realistic. We'll see. Some games aren't your games. We'll see how the season continues to grow and play out."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is officially inactive for Thursday's game against the Green Bay Packers.

Bridgewater, who sprained his left ankle Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, will sit out, as Christian Ponder starts for the Vikings. Chandler Harnish, who was added to the practice squad Monday and activated from it Thursday afternoon, will back up Ponder.

The Vikings will also be without linebacker Chad Greenway, who had been ruled out for Thursday's game with a broken rib and broken hand. There aren't many surprises among their other inactives: Defensive end Scott Crichton, linebacker Brandon Watts, guard Austin Wentworth, guard David Yankey and tight end Kyle Rudolph will all sit out.

There's no rain at Lambeau Field yet, though it certainly looks like precipitation is on the way. We'll see how the Vikings handle their latest set of injuries in about 90 minutes.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Well, the QB move we were discussing this morning has indeed happened. The Minnesota Vikings announced a few minutes ago they've signed quarterback Chandler Harnish from their practice squad, waiving receiver Rodney Smith to make room for him. While the move doesn't necessarily mean the Vikings will sit Teddy Bridgewater with a sprained left ankle on Thursday night against the Green Bay Packers, it would indicate the Vikings aren't confident enough in his status to avoid hedging their bets.

If Bridgewater were going to play, he'd start. If the Vikings didn't feel comfortable putting him on the field, they wouldn't want to expose themselves to a scenario where he'd have to enter the game if Christian Ponder was injured. That's why Harnish is on the roster -- to give the Vikings a healthy backup QB in the event Ponder starts. If Bridgewater is healthy enough to play, it'd be easy enough to deactivate Harnish, start Bridgewater and go into the game with Ponder as his backup. But I can't see a scenario where Bridgewater is active and not starting.

We'll get a definitive answer on his status by 6:55 ET/5:55 CT, when inactives are announced, and we could get an early glimpse of how he looks if the Vikings bring him out for warmups or an early workout before the game. The decision to add Harnish to the active roster, though, indicates that at the very least, Bridgewater starting against the Packers is in some doubt.
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The Minnesota Vikings have done their best to conceal their plans for Teddy Bridgewater on Thursday night, either because they truly don't know whether the rookie will be able to play on a sprained ankle at Lambeau Field or because they don't want the Green Bay Packers to know which quarterback they'll be facing. But by the middle of Thursday afternoon, the Vikings might have to tip their hand somewhat.

Here's why: If Christian Ponder is going to start, it stands to reason the Vikings would plan to deactivate Bridgewater and put a healthy backup QB on the roster; they likely wouldn't want to sit him at the start of the game, only to have to put him in if Ponder got hurt. If they were going to elevate one of their two practice squad quarterbacks -- McLeod Bethel-Thompson or Chandler Harnish -- to their active roster, they'd have to make a roster move by 4 p.m. ET on Thursday.

If the Vikings add a third quarterback to their 53-man roster tomorrow, it doesn't necessarily mean that Ponder will start and Bridgewater won't; the Vikings might just be trying to cover themselves in case they decide before the game that Bridgewater can't go. But if the Vikings don't make a move tomorrow afternoon, keeping Bridgewater and Ponder as the only quarterbacks on their active roster, it would seem to indicate Bridgewater will start.

Hopefully this will all be resolved cleanly on Thursday. We're still having flashbacks of the last time we were in this situation before a prime-time game at Lambeau Field -- in a game where the Vikings bowed out of the playoffs with Joe Webb lobbing passes while in the grasp of Packers defenders.

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Welcome to Around the Horns, our daily look at what's happening on the Vikings beat:

In the Minnesota Vikings' calculations about whether Teddy Bridgewater will play on a sprained left ankle Thursday night in Green Bay, there's this to consider: The game-time forecast calls for temperatures in the low 60s, with an 80 percent chance of rain. That means if the Vikings are going to play Bridgewater, they'll have to be reasonably confident he can play on a wet surface at Lambeau Field.

The Vikings could get a chance to test that out during a light practice Wednesday, when it's supposed to be raining in the Twin Cities. Bridgewater was scheduled to do some running and flexibility exercises for his ankle Tuesday. Wednesday would be his chance to do some throwing and see if he's able to plant on his left foot when he delivers, if the Vikings decided to do anything outside. He'd also get another chance to work in wet weather; Bridgewater played without his gloves during the Vikings' final preseason game on a rainy night in Nashville.

Talking about the game on Wednesday, Bridgewater certainly sounded like a man who planned on playing Thursday night. "It’ll be very exciting to be out there on Thursday," Bridgewater said. "You talk about Lambeau Field, the history and the tradition behind that stadium. It’s going to be a great feeling just being able to play in that facility with all of the history that’s behind it."

Then again, the last time the Vikings were preparing to play a night game in Green Bay, they led everybody to believe Christian Ponder was ready to start their 2013 NFL wild card game, only to start Joe Webb. It's worth keeping that in mind, too.

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W2W4: Minnesota Vikings

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
The Minnesota Vikings (3-0) try to finish the preseason undefeated as they take on the Tennessee Titans (2-1) on Thursday night at LP Field:
  1. Crunch time for middle linebackers: While coach Mike Zimmer said he has an idea of what he wants to do with the Vikings' starting middle linebacker spot, he still wants to see more before making a decision between Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole -- so much so that the Vikings might stay in their base defense more often on Thursday night so they can see the middle linebackers on the field. Brinkley and Cole rotated series last week against Kansas City, and will probably do the same on Thursday. But if they're on the field in passing situations, the Vikings will get a more complete picture of where each one stands, rather than shifting to their nickel package as readily as they might in the regular season.
  2. Robinson gets another shot: Cornerback Josh Robinson has gone through a tough training camp and preseason, in large part because of a nagging hamstring injury, but after the Vikings cut Derek Cox in their initial set of moves this week, it seemed less likely the team would give up on Robinson in his third season. The cornerback is likely to play Thursday, and Zimmer -- who exasperatedly referred to Robinson as "that other guy" when discussing players who were still sitting out because of injuries last week -- sounded more positive about Robinson on Tuesday, saying he was in the right position on a 42-yard pass interference penalty last Saturday against the Chiefs, adding, "I'm confident and hopeful he will continue to progress to where we need him to be." With Marcus Sherels having logged much of the playing time as the third cornerback lately, Robinson will have to make the most of his time on the field Thursday to push his name back up the list of the Vikings' top corners.
  3. Ponder to play, Bridgewater to start? The Vikings will give quarterback Christian Ponder some playing time on Thursday night after sitting him out of their last two exhibition games. While Ponder has rarely seemed more insignificant in Minnesota, he'll get his chance to show whether he's made some progress in the Vikings' offense. Zimmer praised the quarterback on Tuesday, saying he made several "really nice throws" in practice. If Ponder can do that during a game, it'd help raise his stock for the Vikings or (more likely) another team down the road. Rookie Teddy Bridgewater has a "good chance" to start the game, Zimmer said, and if that happens, it will be interesting to see how Bridgewater does in that setting. The fourth preseason game isn't exactly a reliable indicator of performance, but starting Bridgewater would provide the best chance for the rookie to play with (and against) a smattering of first-team players.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- At this time last year, Christian Ponder's preseason was over. He was firmly entrenched as the Vikings' starting quarterback headed into the beginning of the regular season, and as such, he was preparing to sit out the team's final exhibition game against the Tennessee Titans.

Of course, it's all turned around this year. Ponder is the third-string quarterback, behind the veteran the Vikings initially signed to back him up and the player they drafted in the first round as their new QB of the future. He hasn't played in the Vikings' last two preseason games, and though coach Mike Zimmer has hinted the Vikings will keep three quarterbacks, Ponder would be on the roster as an afterthought, not a centerpiece.

This Thursday, as the Vikings wrap up their preseason schedule against Tennessee, the stage figures to be Ponder's. He'll likely see a healthy share of the playing time against the Titans, and if he does so, he'd effectively get his first significant chunk of work since last Dec. 1, when a concussion knocked him out of a game against the Chicago Bears and Matt Cassel claimed a starting job he still hasn't given back.

Thursday could be the last significant playing time Ponder sees in a Vikings uniform, though he says he's not asking for a trade to speed up his exit from Minnesota.

"That's up to our GM," he said. "I'm not going in and saying anything to him right now in terms of that. Whatever happens is going to happen. If I go to the GM and ask for a trade, that doesn't mean the other team wants me. It's really up to everyone else."

Even if he's in Minnesota all season, Ponder will be a free agent at the end of the year, and will in all likelihood be looking for work elsewhere. He said he's not treating Thursday as an audition for other teams, even though it could be his final chance to put something on video before he hits free agency.

The Vikings have said they've seen improvement in Ponder's play, though it remains to be seen whether any of that will come to light in a game after Thursday night. If the Titans game is indeed Ponder's only concentrated chunk of playing time this season, it'll serve as a bizarre footnote to a dizzying turn of events for the quarterback in Minnesota.

"It's definitely a little different," he said. "This week, the first-team offense will be running scout team and everything, and taking it easy. It's completely different. Honestly, I'm excited to just get out there and play. Getting more reps in practice makes this week fun, and I'm looking forward to getting some action in the game. I'm learning so much from watching Matt and Teddy [Bridgewater], and listening to [quarterbacks coach] Scott [Turner] and [offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner]. I really feel like I have a great understanding of what we're doing, and my confidence is high right now."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Three months before the Minnesota Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater, they had constructed a climate in which Bridgewater -- or any young quarterback -- should be able to develop without the pressure of immediate expectations.

The Vikings committed more cash to veteran Matt Cassel when he opted out of his 2014 deal, giving him a two-year, $10 million contract that effectively set him up as the bridge to the team's next young QB. They had hired offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who had Troy Aikman, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers in the nascent stages of their careers. They even had Christian Ponder, the former first-round pick who could serve -- at least for a year -- as an emergency option in case Cassel got injured and the Vikings weren't ready to put a rookie on the field.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltBy starting Matt Cassel over Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has given his rookie more time to develop.
All of the levers were in place to ensure a healthy environment for Bridgewater to develop. The only question: Would the Vikings pull the right ones?

Based on how new coach Mike Zimmer and Turner handled the first three months of Bridgewater's career in Minnesota, the answer appears to be yes. Zimmer named Cassel the starting quarterback Monday for the beginning of the regular season, rewarding the veteran for playing well enough to keep the job after he'd called Cassel the team's No. 1 QB on the first day of training camp.

Zimmer said at the time the designation didn't mean anything, but in a subtle way, it did: It set up a system in which Bridgewater would have to outplay Cassel to get the job, removed whatever temptation there might have been to play the rookie right away and sent a message to an offense filled with veterans -- 29-year-old running back Adrian Peterson among them -- that immediate success wouldn't take a backseat to development.

"The team has a lot of confidence in him," Zimmer said of Cassel. "They feel good about his veteran leadership and presence. I had to think about the whole football team; it wasn’t just about the quarterbacks. I’ve said this before: It’s not always the best player at that position -- and I’m not saying Matt’s not -- but any position, it’s how everything works together and at this stage in where we are at right now, I feel like that’s the best thing to do."

How this coaching staff handles Bridgewater will play a major role in Zimmer's longevity with the Vikings probably more than how the team fares this season. The decision Zimmer announced on Monday -- and the one his actions had been pointing toward for weeks -- worked on two fronts: It curried favor with players weary of quarterback instability after last season, and it provided more time for Bridgewater to learn in a forgiving environment.

Cassel will be asked to solve a tough St. Louis Rams defense on the road in Week 1, and could possibly have to trade scoring drives with Tom Brady and Brees the next two weeks. That's a daunting task for a rookie, and by assigning it to Cassel, the Vikings can retain some control over the setting in which Bridgewater eventually debuts.

They've been in a position to do that all along, with a sturdy (but not irreplaceable) veteran and an offensive coordinator who has done this before. All the Vikings needed was a rookie coach who would be pragmatic enough to manage it correctly, and it appears that's what Zimmer has done.