- Ben Goessling, ESPN Staff Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Christian Ponder has talked about it, the keener observers among you have mentioned it and the Minnesota Vikings' coaches appear to be listening to it: Ponder is more comfortable when he plays out of the shotgun.
And lately, as the Vikings have made more of an effort to put Ponder in the shotgun, increase the tempo of their offense and keep defenses from loading the box, something else has happened: Ponder is playing better.
Since he returned to the lineup on Oct. 26 against Green Bay, Ponder has the fifth-best Total QBR in the league when not under center, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He's connected on 35 of his 51 attempts from the shotgun, throwing for 289 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, which is good for a QBR of 74.8, What's more, Ponder has been markedly better in the shotgun (and in five plays in the pistol!) than he has under center all season. His QBR there is 72.7; under center, it's an abysmal 35.2.
So what's the difference? One of Ponder's most obvious flaws as a quarterback is the speed with which he seems to give up on his progressions and leave the pocket. Well, if he's starting from the shotgun, he doesn't have to spend time reading the defense while dropping back and might feel more secure with a little extra space. He's also not seeing loaded fronts nearly as often -- largely because there's little threat of the Vikings running the ball from the shotgun -- and Ponder's numbers are better because of it. In fact, Ponder only sees seven or more defenders in the box 22 percent of the time when he's in the shotgun. When he's dropped back from under center, he's seen seven-man fronts a whopping 79 percent of the time.
Now, here's the rub: The Vikings are still built around an elite running back in Adrian Peterson. Come to that, they're built around an elite running back who has done most of his work behind, not alongside, a quarterback. Peterson has carried just 19 times this season from the shotgun or pistol, and that's already a career high. In fact, he had a combined 19 carries in the shotgun/pistol the past two seasons. He's stated he prefers to run in a one-man backfield, and Peterson's stats on shotgun/pistol handoffs this season -- 19 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown -- are encouraging. But he still does his best work when he can hit the line with a full head of steam, and the Vikings just paid Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton $7.5 million to block for Peterson over the next three years. They can't make all of these things work together at once, and in the end, they've got an elite running back, not an elite quarterback.
But what if the Vikings can figure out how to run effectively from the shotgun? Right now, they seem fairly predictable when they move Ponder out from under center, but might they have a solution for a couple of their problems by backing up and spreading out the defense? There are some members of the Vikings' organization who have grumbled about offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's tendency to bunch players up on the line of scrimmage, effectively attracting more defenders and choking off space for Peterson. But in the past few weeks, Musgrave has started to open up their offense and trust Ponder to work from a formation he says he enjoys.
For the time being, that decision might provide a spark to the Vikings' offense, especially if they can make it work for both their MVP running back and their fledgling quarterback.