By Joseph Gunther
The Minnesota Vikings looked like a team that could go a long way on defense and methodic offense through the first five games this season.
However, in the last three games things are not looking as good and Christian Ponder is getting most of the blame.
The second-year quarterback from Florida State has not put up the same quality numbers that he did in the first four games of the season. He has completed just 87 of 139 passes (62.6 percent), including outings in which he completed more than 65 percent of his passes in Weeks 5 and 6, six touchdown passes and seven interceptions in the last four games.
The numbers were minimally helped by Thursday’s performance. He completed 19 of 35 passes for 251 yards a touchdown and an interception against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Not terrible, until you see that he completed 9 of 13 passes for 122 yards in the final seven minutes of the game with the Vikings trailing by 19 points.
How much is Ponder’s fault. The poor throws and bad decisions can be put on him, but how many of those did he have Thursday? Not as many he is getting credit for.
Jerome Simpson was supposed to be the missing link that helped extend the field, but Thursday’s performance summed up his career perfectly. He made some terrific and acrobatic catches, but at other times he made huge mistakes. After making a nice catch on a slant in traffic, he didn’t tuck the ball away and it was punched out from behind. Any rhythm that Ponder could have gotten into after completing his first pass was gone. Later in the game, Ponder threw a nearly perfect pass up the sideline on a deep route. The only problem was that Simpson ran the route too close to sideline, which gave Ponder no room to complete the pass. With his speed and size, Simpson should be open on nearly every play.
That is if Ponder has enough time to throw the ball. There is the second problem with blaming Ponder for the loss. The Buccaneers brought blitzes at him on every play of several consecutive series. The offensive line, running backs and tight ends had trouble picking them up and Ponder did not have time to find a receiver. The left side, tackle Matt Kalil and guard Charlie Johnson in particular, had their worst games of the season. They seemed to be on different pages at times. Also center John Sullivan made a critical mistake that cost the Vikings any chance of converting on third down. He snapped the ball out of shotgun while Ponder wasn’t looking.
The third factor is play calling. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave needs to put Ponder in better positions to succeed. He is forcing Ponder too much. In the first three drives, all three plays and punt, Ponder was 0-5 passing. He missed on short passes to Percy Harvin and Michael Jenkins and long passes to Simpson. The other four plays were run plays.
Adrian Peterson had three carries for 17 yards. He had runs of eight yards on second-and-10, five yards on first-and-10 and four yards on first-and-10. He was looking strong, but was not given the opportunity to take over the game. He finally got the Vikings its first two first downs late in the first quarter on back-to-back 11 yard runs. The next two plays were pass plays. On the first, Ponder scrambled up the middle for one yard. On the second play, Ponder completed his first pass and Simpson fumbled.
The play calling may have been predictable when Simpson was suspended, but it was effective. Musgrave may be trying to be too cute, when the offense is really built to just line up and play.
Ponder isn’t making plays, but also isn’t getting much help.
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Joseph Gunther is an avid fan of Minnesota sports, including football, hockey and baseball. He covered a wide variety of sports while attending Hastings College in Hastings, Neb. While at Hastings College, he was a part of the first collegiate media group to broadcast a national tournament via television, radio, internet and newspaper at the 2004 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. He grew up in the Twin Cities playing three years of varsity football in high school. His work can be found on Examiner.com.