A few weeks back SFC’s Twitter asked its followers which of the second year QB’s was having the best year. Immediately without much thought I answered with one word.
Now, I had only really seen the results and the flittering TD passes on NFL RedZone. So I said I would look at the 2nd year QB’s, Ponder in particular and look at their season.
The result has been a bandwagon jumper on the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft in myself and got excited for a team’s future, which includes a trip to Wembley next autumn.
But anyway, to the breakdown of Ponder. The Florida State product had a mixed and stunted rookie year where his INT to TD ratio was an even 13 apiece. In a team which went 3-13 in 2011, which tied a Franchise record for ineptitude, and was one which quickly moved on from the wretched and brief Donovan McNabb experiment, a lot was expected from the Florida State alum ahead of the 2012 season.
In April’s draft they looked to protect their franchise QB and made the safest pick they could with Matt Kalil from USC. Kalil, the archetypal ‘Blindside protector’, has had a good start to the season but other pieces on the offense have really helped Ponder’s development.
Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson’s health was a pre-season key and going into the week 1 game against Jacksonville, AP’s health was a question mark in the sense of how many snaps his rebuilt knee could handle nine months on from his nasty injury.
In a dramatic finish and Vikings win (26-23 in OT), Ponder’s performance could possibly been overshadowed somewhat. But watching it back he looked more composed than he did in his rookie year.
The gameplan was clear – rely on AP and keep Ponder clean. They did both all game.
The 2012 Vikings offense has two former Notre Dame pass-catching Tight Ends – John Carlson, an off-season free agency pick up and 2nd year draft pick Kyle Rudolph – and against the Jaguars it was the latter who stood out as a favoured target for the former Florida State QB.
Rudolph was Ponder’s safety blanket and finished the day with 67 yards from 5 catches, the best one coming in the 3rd quarter.
The Vikings at the Jaguars 32 and facing a 3rd & 8, Ponder stands in the Shotgun with Toby Gerhart next to him as an extra blocker.
Three WR’s line up on his left- Kyle Rudolph (Circled in Red) outside of the numbers with Percy Harvin inside and Michael Jenkins (both yellow) closest to the scrimmage and Devin Aromashodu up top with the corner in press. The Jags have six on the line, seemingly showing blitz. On the snap two Jaguars step back into coverage with four rushing the passer.
Ponder’s first look is to Aromashodu who was pressed along the sideline, before evolving to Jenkins who has a LB on his tail. Four seconds in and pocket clean, Ponder looks to his third read and Rudolph has made some room for himself down the sideline. The safety is out of the play, and Ponder delivers a dime right into the striding Rudolph inside the 15. Beauty of a pass from Ponder and it set up a chip shot Field goal to give the Vikings a 17-12 lead.
Before all the drama at the end of the game, this pass showed early poise from the QB and the pocket presence was smart and would have built confidence in Minnesota, who may have been a bit twitchy about their 1st round draft choice from 12 months before.
In the second week, after that confidence booster of a win, Ponder faced a rebuilt Indianapolis defense.
It was a unit which was young with some journeymen sprinkled in. But it caused the Vikings OL plenty of problems and made Ponder make throws quicker than designed. Ponder wasn’t as smooth or methodical in this game as he was a week before, but the gameplan of getting Harvin involved in anyway possible evolved as he was used as a RB as well as in plenty of WR screen passes and end-around’s.
The coaching on Ponder is clear; play-action passes have to be delivered in rhythm giving the D an imbalance with the constant threat of Harvin getting the ball in open spaces, a recipe which could of spelt disaster for the hosts.
Quick decisions worked for Ponder, and slant passes are a staple part of this offense against defenses trying to deal with two game-breakers in AP and Harvin.
That was a standard set up for the Vikings in Indy, and with AP alongside Ponder as well as Harvin in the slot (second up from the bottom), it kept the D guessing. As the ball is snapped, Harvin runs a fade to the right going seven yards deep, taking the DB with him. The two LB’s (closest to the referee) are stuck in limbo as AP runs a quick out route in front of them and the ball, with the twist of the hips from Ponder, the throw is completed for 5 yards to Michael Jenkins (top of pic) and the late drive continued; smart play-calling aiding Ponder in a drive which ended with a Kyle Rudolph TD, albeit in a 23-20 defeat, this time the late-game heroics coming against the Vikings.
But over the first two games, Ponder’s poise had clearly grown in his second year. Aided no doubt with a full slate of OTA’s etc and ‘the man’ in Minnesota without a veteran taking away his playing time, he was better for it.
Week 3 saw the Vikings face the vaunted San Francisco 49ers defense and clearly the toughest task this season for Ponder.
The task ahead didn’t seem to unnerve, Ponder as he set about on a 15-play opening drive on the rolling 9ers. The drive ended with touchdown on the 1 yard line on a 4th down play.
After three Peterson runs were stuffed the Viking looked to put early points on the board.
Vikings came to the line with Peterson and full back Jerome Felton in the I-formation behind Ponder and Kyle Rudolph (red circle) and John Carlson (black circle) at the line looking to block.
As the ball is snapped, Ponder play fakes an AP run, with Felton and AP fully commiting to smashing into the pile while Ponder curls out to his left, and with blitzing DB Dashon Goldson in his face, he runs backwards with Goldson the only 49er putting pressure on him.
Ponder remains poised and despite being ‘flushed’ 10 yards back, he allows the play to develop with both Rudolph and Carlson running identical routes.
They both break free of press at the line, Rudolph lined up against Aldon Smith(white box). On the play-fake he, along with Patrick Willis, Donte Whitner and Navorro Bowman are all neutralised as both in coverage and pass rusher and they are left on their heels as Rudolph eases into space with no trickery. Ponder sees it and throws a perfectly weighted and timed ball to the corner of the end zone giving the Vikings the early 7-0 lead after an 82 yard drive.
This drive is another example of the improvement Ponder is showing – poise in the face of a pass rusher and able to pass with finesse to a favourite target.
After a drive in the 2nd quarter nearly stumbles, literally, to a halt, a money 3rd down completion to Aromashodu is followed by a fantastic play call and execution from Ponder.
John Carlson is sent in-motion from left to right giving the Vikings three receivers on the right side with both Harvin (top) and Michael Jenkins outside.
It looks like a screen to Harvin, with Jenkins and Carlson blocking is the read as the safety (left) seems to move across with Carlson.
The reason for me calling this a designed play-call is the body language of Harvin. Not one of someone who is getting the ball. The right side of the OL are forcing the DL across their bodies and opening up a lane for Ponder.
Ponder fakes the pass to Harvin and then to Carlson who runs down the sideline taking Patrick Willis and the over-the-top Safety with him. Ponder, with the lane open, runs past Bowman (standing on the 20 above) and with Willis and the covering DB’s on the left, it is just a straight sprint to the endzone – a race Ponder wins. A gutsy play exhibited with success against a D of the 9ers class.
In the 2nd half, the 9ers predictably fight back and Ponder relies more on the run.
But they did put more on the board with just a fantastic touch pass from Ponder to Rudolph on a 3rd and goal at the start of the 4th quarter. Seriously, go watch it.
After the second TD, Ponder conducted the game to his best with that word again, poise. Third down completions kept runs going with AP chipping in with decent first down runs. Given the team he was facing, this for me was his best performance this season and will be more than a sign of encouragement to Vikings fans. This kid is good.
In Week 4, he faced the Detroit Lions and again and for the 4th game running, he did not turn the ball over. He was only asked to attempt 26 passes (16 completions) but again, he led his team to a win, moving the Vikings to a 3-1 record.
Week 5 and 6 have been tougher for him, despite a win against the Titans, where he threw his first two interceptions of the season in a 30-7 win. Week 6, the Vikings got away from what they had done previously and carried out a gameplan of relying on the run to give their QB options for Harvin et al to do their work.
A season-high of 52 attempts again included 2 INTs as they fell 36-28 to the RGIII led Redskins.
Christian Ponder Game by Game stats:
|Opponent||Score||Pass Completions||Pass Attempts||Yards||TD||INT|
|Vs Jax||W 26-23 (OT)||20||27||270||0||0|
|@ Indy||L 20-23||27||35||245||2||0|
|Vs SF||W 24-13||21||35||198||2
+1 rush TD
|@ Det||W 20-13||16||26||111||0||0|
|Vs Tenn||W 30-7||25||35||258||2||2|
|@ Was||L 26-38||35||52||352||2||2|
Overall, as I said at the start, it is clear that Ponder is the best of the 2nd year QB’s during the first six weeks of the season.
He has a healthy Adrian Peterson, along with the trust of the coaches in Minnesota and that has concocted together to give him a on-field confidence which was arguably missing in his early starts. Percy Harvin, finally at full health, is becoming a key cog in the machine and watching game film it is obvious they get him the ball in open field at every opportunity and Harvin’s stats back up the fact that he is firstly tougher than some may think and productive at the same time.
If Ponder stays healthy and they pull results out like the one at home to the fancied 49ers then there is no question in my mind that they could be in the wildcard mix come Christmas. Two games still to come against the Packers will be a test of this young team, but the early part of the season shows that this is a rapidly improving team and it all starts now with #7.