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PonderWatch: Facing unpredictable Packers

10/19/2011

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier made it official Wednesday. Christian Ponder is his starting quarterback for the remainder of the season, and Donovan McNabb is now a high-priced backup.

Frazier hit all the obvious points in explaining his decision to reporters. In reality, the only unanswered question was the timing: Why now? Most notably, Frazier said, the Vikings are 1-5 and Ponder has displayed "major jumps in his performance and his composure and poise and command" in practice.

That jump, of course, has coincided with a schedule that will bring the NFL's best team to the Metrodome on Sunday. The Green Bay Packers are 6-0 and, despite some defensive struggles this season, can offer a schematic nightmare at a rookie NFL quarterback.

Coordinator Dom Capers technically employs a 3-4 front, but we all know the Packers spend more time in variations of their nickel alignment. They've been known to use anywhere from two to five defensive linemen, between one and five linebackers, and between three and six defensive backs, depending on Capers' whim at the moment.

So it's instructive to examine how Capers has approached games against rookie quarterbacks since joining the Packers in 2009. Thanks to some quick work from John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information, we have an interesting trend to pass along.

As the chart shows, Capers has actually blitzed less and played more coverage against rookies than he has against quarterbacks with at least one year of experience. It's an admittedly small sample size of three games -- this season against Cam Newton and in 2009 against Josh Freeman and Matthew Stafford -- but it's worth noting nonetheless.

Capers has been known to craft wildly different game plans on a weekly basis, and he was more aggressive against Freeman (41.2 blitz percentage) than he was with Stafford (27.1) or even Newton (27.3). Often, flooded zones can be just as effective in disrupting a still-learning quarterback than constant blitzes.

Ponder said it is "obviously going to be a challenge, but it's not too different from what we've seen before." He added: "[T]he biggest thing for me is to try to watch film to prepare for it and try to get as comfortable as possible. It won't be too big of a challenge. We've seen some stuff like this before."

We obviously don't know what Capers will have cooked up for Ponder. Some of it could depend on the state of the Vikings' offensive line; center John Sullivan (concussion) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (knee) did not practice Wednesday. But regardless, I wouldn't be certain that it's something we've seen before, or at least often. And I certainly wouldn't assume it will fall in line with traditional approaches to rookie quarterbacks.