EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Adrian Peterson was as wide open as anyone has ever been in the NFL.
Standing all alone in the end zone, the Minnesota Vikings running back waved his arms emphatically as Christian Ponder dropped back to pass.
Ponder never saw him, instead throwing the critical third-down pass in Kyle Rudolph’s direction despite safety Donte Whitner being draped all over the big tight end.
No matter, Rudolph hauled in the pass with a sensational one-handed grab that gave the Vikings some much-needed breathing room at the start of the fourth quarter against San Francisco. It was Rudolph’s second touchdown of the game, one that gave the Vikings a 24-13 lead that held up for the final 14 minutes.
It should come as no surprise that Ponder went to Rudolph on the game’s two biggest plays, the other a TD pass on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on the opening possession of the game.
Ponder and Rudolph became fast friends after being drafted by the Vikings a year ago. That relationship is starting to pay dividends on the field.
“Just having the trust in him and having the communication level, it definitely translates,” Ponder said on Monday.
Six of Ponder’s 17 career touchdown passes have gone to Rudolph, including three of four this season. When Ponder gets in trouble and needs someone to bail him out, he consistently looks to No. 82.
“That’s without question one of Christian’s favorite targets, trying to get the ball to Kyle, and for good reason,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “Kyle usually comes through for him. So it means a lot that they have the type of relationship that they have.
“For a quarterback, sometimes the tight end becomes a security blanket. And that’s what Kyle has become for him in so many ways. And a lot of that has to do with their relationship off the field as well as what happens on the field.”
The bond may have been strengthened by their unusual entrance into the NFL. Ponder was a first-round draft choice and Rudolph was taken in the second round last season, with the Vikings envisioning the tandem as the future of an offense in rebuild mode.
But a short while after being selected, they were locked out as part of the labor struggle that marred the summer of 2010.
The rookies couldn’t speak to their coaches, get guidance from team executives or get a jumpstart on training camp with full-team workouts at the practice facility.
So they relied on each other, meeting in various places to run through plays, discuss the playbook and prepare as best they could for their first training camp.
They quickly found that they had a lot in common. Both are laid-back and fun-loving, with the kind of casual, college kid nature that made for a close-knit friendship.
“He’s an easy guy to get along with,” Ponder said with a shrug. “Just coming in together as rookies, I think that whole experience really bonded us. We just have fun hanging out together.”
They’re spending a lot more time together in the end zone this season. Rudolph has already equaled his total from all of last season, emerging as the kind of athletic, powerful mismatch for opposing defenses that he was before he tore his hamstring at Notre Dame.
“He’s creating havoc right now,” receiver Percy Harvin said.
The Vikings will also get another weapon on offense this week when receiver Jerome Simpson joins the mix after sitting out the first three games because of a suspension. Simpson’s speed on the outside could open things up even more down the middle for Rudolph.
And Ponder’s confidence and command of the offense seems to be growing by the day. He’s completed 70.1 percent of his passes with no interceptions in the first three weeks and has gradually taken on more of a leadership role for a unit that has lacked direction the past two seasons.
“He has a poise and confidence about himself in the huddle that the rest of the offense feeds off of,” Rudolph said. “He made a lot of great plays and he’s only getting better.”
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