NFL Nation: Chrisian Ponder

By the bye: Minnesota Vikings

November, 17, 2012
11/17/12
8:00
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Reviewing the Minnesota Vikings at their bye:

Record: 6-4

10-game capsule: The Vikings have outpaced external expectations and are in the NFC playoff race. There have been some ups and downs, a not-unexpected development for a team with the NFL's fifth-youngest roster (via the Elias Sports Bureau) and new starters at 11 positions. But at their best, the Vikings have had an efficient offense that is smartly tailored to their personnel, along with a defense that has returned to its physical roots and a special teams that has benefited from one of the league's most surprising rookies. Oh, and some guy named Adrian Peterson has been perhaps the best story in professional sports for the entire year.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireAdrian Peterson has proved that he's as strong as ever after last season's ACL injury.
MVP: Peterson has re-written the protocol for ACL injuries. Not only did he recover in a single offseason, a span of 260 days from injury to his first game back, but he also obliterated the assumption that it takes a full year to regain full strength. Peterson, in fact, is off to the best 10-game start in his career with 1,128 yards and an average of 5.8 yards per carry. He has run with power (an NFL-high 544 yards after first contact) and explosion (13 carries of at least 20 yards, nearly twice the total of the next-best runner). And it has all come against defenses that are ignoring the Vikings' low-wattage passing game. Peterson has faced at least eight men in the box on 57 runs this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and has averaged a league-best 6.3 yards on those carries. Only three runners (on a total of four occasions) have maintained the pace Peterson has set for a full season in terms of yards and yards per carry. You might have heard their names before: Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Barry Sanders.

Biggest surprise: The Vikings raised some eyebrows by deciding to replace veteran place-kicker Ryan Longwell, one of the most accurate legs in team history. Their choice to replace him was also curious: Georgia's Blair Walsh, who missed 14 of 35 field goals during his final college season. A 60 percent conversion rate is hardly an ideal figure, but special teams coordinator Mike Priefer convinced team officials that Walsh had developed a correctable flaw in his fundamentals. The Vikings drafted Walsh in the sixth round, and sure enough, he's been one of the NFL's best place-kickers. He ranks second in the league with 23 field goals (in 24 attempts), including all five attempts from at least 50 yards, and ranks first in touchbacks with 41. Walsh has helped maximize the scoring opportunities of a limited offense while also aiding the defense with field position more than any other specialist this season.

Bonus surprise: If Peterson has faced more eight-man boxes than any other runner, it stands to reason that quarterback Christian Ponder has enjoyed more than his share of favorable looks in the passing game. That assumption makes it difficult to reconcile a five-game slump that included eight interceptions, 15 sacks and desultory passing performances of 58 and 63 yards. The Vikings aren't blessed with a deep crew of downfield receivers, but it should be easier to be consistent in this offense than Ponder has made it look. At times, his accuracy on even the shortest of passes has raised red flags. Ponder rebounded with an efficient performance against the Detroit Lions before heading into the bye. But after 20 NFL starts, the jury remains out on his long-term prospects.

Stat to note: Receiver Percy Harvin has caught 62 passes, the fifth-highest total in the NFL. Those passes, however, have traveled an average of 2.3 yards past the line of scrimmage. Harvin has done the rest on his own, totaling an NFL-high 528 yards after the catch. There is no better illustration of what the Vikings passing game has largely been through 10 games: Dump it to Percy and let him do his thing.

Looking ahead: The post-bye schedule includes consecutive games against the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and the Bears again. The Vikings also have a visit to the Houston Texans and another game against the Packers before it's over. That's a brutal six-game stretch. A split of those games, and a season-ending 9-7 record, would qualify as an unmitigated organizational success.
Some of you have noticed that ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski is conducting a 30-part review of the NFL's top quarterbacks, a production that should generate considerable interest in this division as we approach the top 10. The NFC North portion kicked off, however, with the Minnesota Vikings' Christian Ponder checking in at No. 28.

(Tim Tebow was No. 30 and Blaine Gabbert was No. 29, for those interested.)

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Bob Donnan/US PresswireVikings QB Christian Ponder showed promise during his rookie season, but he needs to work on making smarter decisions.
We discussed Ponder's goals and challenges for improvement last month. Jaworski said he expects Ponder "to improve significantly this season" and pointed out some positives and negatives in his assessment. Here are some excerpts:
"Ponder has many of the attributes I look for when I evaluate quarterbacks. I saw pocket movement, the ability to move within the pocket, maintain downfield focus and deliver the football with accuracy. I also saw the added dimension of getting outside the pocket in response to pressure with the speed to create an explosive gain. And how about this for a rookie quarterback: Ponder’s rating was 114, the NFL’s best inside the 20. His movement was also a big factor, as was his willingness to make stick throws into those small windows, a necessity in the tight red zone area. …

As he begins his second season, Ponder needs work as a progression reader. He had a tendency to predetermine some throws, and, in addition, there were too many times he did not recognize the coverage."

Jaworski specifically noted the first of Ponder's three interceptions in a Week 11 loss to the Oakland Raiders. (Video here via NFL.com.) On the play, Ponder forced a pass to his first read -- slot receiver Percy Harvin -- even though safety Matt Giordano had the play read perfectly from the outset.

Jaworski: "His primary read was Percy Harvin on a corner route from the slot. The half-field safety was sitting right there, settled, looking back at Ponder. As a quarterback, you have to be aware of that. That’s part of the learning curve for Ponder."

That example fits perfectly with something Ponder acknowledged was an important part of his progression last month. As part of an effort to be more efficient on first down, Ponder said he wants to be more aware of checkdown possibilities.

"Just [need to make] smarter decisions, I think," he said. "Not trying to force the ball down the field. I think if we have go routes called, if it's not open, have the patience to be able to check it down. It all comes down to patience and knowing your reads and finding the open guy. Football is not a hard game. You've just got to find the open guy and get the ball to him."

We'll keep you updated on where Jaworski ranks Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. He is reporting on one player per day, so I'm guessing it will be a few weeks before we circle back on this project from a division perspective.

(Hat tip to ESPN communications guru Bill Hofheimer for passing along the transcript of Jaworski's analysis.)

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