To ponder is to think thoroughly prior to reaching a solution, which, when applied, implies that Christan Ponder has made smart decisions with the ball this season. He hasn’t.
Now in his second year, the Viking is supposed to be improving as a passer, and although his numbers seemingly indicate that he has (even if it may be to the slightest of margins), he truly hasn’t. He’s operating largely in a scheme that places an emphasis on the short passing game, which suits his abilities well, but doesn’t necessarily win games — partly because of the scheme itself and the execution of it by the trigger man. And now he’s facing the Chicago Bears defense for the second time in three weeks; the same one that forced a fumble once, intercepted him once, and allowed him to complete only 51 percent of his passes to go along with a quarterback rating of 58.2. Ouch.
What exactly went all wrong for Ponder in the initial Week 12 meeting?
It was a variety of things, but before I get to the man himself, I look to the scheme. In all honesty, the gameplan that play caller Bill Musgrave put together was quite frustrating. It really didn’t expose the Bears’ daunting defense, which has only run into issues when an offense has attacked it aggressively in their soft spots and vertically. If the Bears’ defense was the Great Wall of China, the Vikings were the foreigners who were trying to figure out how to go around instead of hopping the wall.
The offense consisted of mainly vanilla concepts that were the simplest and vaguest of zone beaters, which is the coverage they faced, but were so uninspiring and depressing. There were shallow crosses to go along with the double slants concepts and two play action passes — bootleg and deep dig route. Every now and then, Musgrave called a vertical concept, such as 4-verts, and he tried to stick the ball in to the seam to tight end Kyle Rudolph. None of this worked out.
And when it appeared to work, it still didn’t because Ponder didn’t deliver an accurate enough pass. One of the plays that stood out was an interception that Ponder threw in his own territory. It was an example of the aforementioned play action concept to a receiver running a dig route into the middle of the field. After getting the snap, Ponder executed the play fake brilliantly, sucking in two of the linebackers like a vacuum, and created himself nearly a crystal clear, open passing lane. The only barrier that stood in between Ponder and his receiver was an underneath dropper, but even he would not be in the way if Ponder would deliver an anticipatory pass.
As the receiver worked toward the middle, Ponder needed to deliver a pass that was out in front of him, at the left hash and towards the Bears logo in midfield. If he couldn’t execute it, he’d have a simple check down underneath to his outlet and a gain of yardage. But Ponder, who showed confidence in his arm, was gunning for the dig runner and prior to releasing the ball, he slid to his left while in the pocket and right into pressure. When the pressure closed in, Ponder started to release the ball, then was struck by the defender and the ball sailed behind his intended target and into the hands of the deep safety. Just like that, it was an interception.
The pocket movement was the difference between a completion and interception on this play, and it was a problem in this game. Ponder often displayed a quirky and somewhat mechanical discomfort in the pocket during the game, sliding right into the face of a sack and sometimes taking himself out of the play by trying to look off a safety with his entire body instead of merely his eyes.
Another issue that left me dumbstruck was his 2nd and third checkdown to Adrian Peterson late in the ballgame. Simply reading it on the play-by-play charts doesn’t seem so bad. A short down and distance and a pass to Peterson, who is quite adept at picking up yards after contact, isn’t terrible. But it was! And here’s why: Rudolph was WIDE open on the wide right. The play call was 4-verticals against a three deep, Cover 3 zone concept and the Vikings had numbers deep. Ponder, operating in a calm pocket, took one look at Rudolph and then checked it down. In a matter of seconds, Ponder sucked all of the potential out of the play.
The Vikings didn’t take many deep shots against the Bears in this game, so the few times they did, Ponder had to take advantage of them, and he didn’t. To his credit, three deep passes — all dig routes — were dropped — one of which was intercepted and then reversed after review and the other was an interception that stood. But he needs to make these plays against the Bears because they don’t come often. The Bears are a disciplined defense that plays with strong fundamentals and they get to their landmarks consistently.
If the Vikings are to win tomorrow, Ponder will have to step up or there will be more even more questions about his passing ability.
More game film thoughts
- One of the things that was really interesting about this Week 12 game was the play of the Vikings’ offensive line. They often slid in the direction of defensive end/tackle Julius Peppers, who spends the majority of his snaps playing on the weakside of the formation. As a result, the strongside saw one v. one matchups, which included right tackle and guard Phil Loadholt and Brandon Fusco clashing with defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive end Israel Idonije. Both Vikings blockers had issues with the quickness of the Bears’ defenders, noticeably getting caught bending at the waist and consequently lunging, along with having trouble picking up stunts.
- Ponder started the game off completing his first two attempts on play action — both on the same drive and successive plays — and then missing his next two. He only had two more completions on play action the rest of the game. The offense moved at its best when executed the four play actions, however, with both drives concluding in scoring range (one was a blocked FG).
- Ponder didn’t look comfortable against the Bears’ zone coverages. As noted, he experienced discomfort in the pocket largely with his poor movements, and at times he appeared to second guess himself. There were times where it was glaringly obvious that he wasn’t trusting what he was seeing, which included getting rid of the ball at the top of his three-step dropbacks. To his credit, there were times when he was flushed out of the pocket and bailed the offense out, but these situations are separate from the poor pocket movement discussed earlier.
- Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave didn’t appear to do a very good job of attacking the pockets of the Bears’ zone defense, which lie in between the safeties in the middle of the field and in between the cornerbacks and safeties down the sideline. He seemed to be more content attacking in between the outside linebackers and cornerbacks, settling for slant patterns and at other times, screens. Furthermore, he started the game off slowly with his play calling, relying on shallow crosses and hitch routes to get the job done. I would have liked to see more routes in the seam to stretch out the defense both horizontally and vertically. He did more of this later in the second half, but it was too late. He’s going to have to give the offense a better chance of scoring, as they mustered up a meager 10 points in Week 12.