Vikings Weekly Progress Report: Should Ponder's 4 Picks in 2 Games Be a Concern?

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistOctober 16, 2012

LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 14:  Christian Ponder #7 of the Minnesota Vikings throws a pass against the Washington Redskins during the first half at FedExField on October 14, 2012 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The loss to the Washington Redskins is a tough one to swallow, but there's no need to start shoving Jets and Browns fans off the ledge to make room for you.

The Vikings have two very winnable games coming up against the Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a tough, but winnable game against the Seattle Seahawks.

Then it's the Lions again before the bye and the heart of the schedule.

It's entirely possible that the Vikings can head into the bye week 7-3 or even 8-2 (that away game in Seattle is a rough one though, as will be the repeat of the Lions).

One thing which has come up the last two weeks, which I wanted to look at more closely, are the four interceptions quarterback Christian Ponder has thrown.

For the most part there is little insanity among Vikings fans, but I have heard some doubt creeping in about Ponder after the pair of two-pick performances.

Is there cause for concern? After a bunch of very careful, good games, is he regressing?

Let's look at all four and see why they happened, and then an example of why it's going to be fine.

The interception near the start of the fourth quarter this past weekend was primarily a horrific pass (12:56). There seemed to be some confusion on Ponder's part as the Redskins shifted their defense around but his pass to Michael Jenkins was way too high. 

By the look of it, not only was it a bad pass, but a pass I believe should have gone elsewhere. Adrian Peterson was wide open in the flat to Ponder's left and it's hard to imagine he didn't see him.

While there was nobody behind Jenkins and two defenders about five yards behind Peterson, who would you rather have with the ball in their hands? Plus, and this is a big one, why throw a pass where you need to have perfect touch to even be completed instead of an easy lob to one of your two best players?

While Jenkins appeared open, it seems as though Ponder saw the defender coming back off the line and towards Jenkins, which is why he lofted it.

Again, look how open Peterson is. Two defenders or no, a sharp throw to him and he'd have gained more yards.

Bottom line, it was an awful pass.

The second interception in this game was far more of a mental error. While in the first case, Ponder may have just made a bad pass, the game-ending interception was a poor decision made worse by a bad pass.

The Vikings were on the 3-yard line with 28 seconds left, down 12 points. In order to have any chance at tying or winning this game, Ponder needed to make instantaneous decisions—and they had to be perfect.

On this play, neither happened.

The ball is snapped and Ponder has a nice pocket, but you can see pretty quickly that nobody is open. It's third down, so one could see trying to stretch the play and make something happen. Only two seconds are off the clock so, maybe you do what Ponder did and step out and to the left to see if someone breaks open.

But if you take note of the red arrow, you'll see that a defender is closing in on Ponder.

At this point you have to throw the ball away. The option to stretch the play is gone—you have one more down (it's four-down territory here) and you need to save clock anyway. Scrambling is just going to burn it.

Instead, Ponder does what a lot of young quarterbacks do—he panics and tosses it up in the air. 

He had to throw that ball away. If he throws that ball through the uprights—he was out of the pocket and even still could have thrown it close to any number of receivers and still well out of bounds—and his team gets another shot.

That's not a mechanical or physical issue—that pick was all mental.

Looking back at the previous two picks against the Tennessee Titans, it's the same thing, different day.

On his first interception at the end of the first half, Ponder is looking for tight end Kyle Rudolph on a slant towards the end zone.

On the play, Ponder feels pressure and slides out to his left. Rudolph does a great job trailing through the middle of the field without getting picked up and then, quite intelligently, raises his hand to signal Ponder.

The quarterback sees Rudolph wide open and it should be a very simple pass to him but everything goes wrong at once.

Ponder never plants his feet as he's on the run, and he awkwardly contorts his upper body as he throws, almost throwing across his body, but not quite.

The ball sails on him, floating high and behind Rudolph, who tries to reach up and back for it in vain.

Unfortunately, the ball tips off Rudolph's hand, then off a defender's outstretched hands and into a second defender's arms. It's actually a fantastic defensive play on the tip, but it's a ball which should have been a very simple completion.

The fourth interception comes on a pass intended for Jerome Simpson and is a simple matter of Ponder either not reading the defense correctly and missing the coverage underneath or trusting his arm far too much and failing to get the perfect touch on it.

On the play, you can see Simpson on the top of the screen. He will run towards the 40-yard line (yellow arrow) and then cut inwards towards the 30-yard line. The cornerback will come with him (top red arrow), though Simpson will have inside position.

What Ponder misses (or thinks he can avoid) is free safety Jordan Babineaux dropping into coverage (second red arrow). It looks as if Babineaux was playing as more of a linebacker, which I've seen several times from different teams this year, but either way, he has great position.

I can't really see how this throw was going to be successful, even if he saw the coverage. Simpson is too well-covered and Babineaux is all over him. Maybe Ponder thought he could thread the needle, but if that's the case, it was a terrible throw. Maybe he missed Babineaux, but that's hard to believe.

Either way, it's a mental mistake and a big one, though ultimately not as damaging as the ones in the game against Washington.

Now, before you throw yourself off a ledge, this is nothing to worry about.

Yes, the interceptions (especially the ones against the Redskins) are painful, but he does a lot more right than wrong.

For example, let's look at an example of a great read Ponder made on the defense against the Titans.

On this play, Ponder sees single coverage on the outside against Kyle Rudolph as Michael Jenkins lines up in the slot on the same side.  The defender lined up on Jenkins is playing well off and there is no other close support on the right side of the field.

Ponder astutely reads that Rudolph, on a deep route, will clear his defender out, while Jenkins can go a little behind and underneath. Ponder assumes, given the depth of the coverage on Jenkins, that his receiver will be able to get inside the defender and protect the ball.

Even better though, nobody stays with Jenkins so when Rudolph clears his man out and Jenkins heads for the sideline, he is wide open.

He even has enough time to turn and get the first down and get the Vikings to the 4-yard line.

Ponder has done this most of the season. He's gotten very sharp on the short game, even if his decision-making and mechanics (accuracy, touch) go a little wonky on occasion.

We have to remember that he is still a very raw player, and he has made great strides this season. The coaching staff is doing a fantastic job of putting him in a position to succeed most of the time.

His mistakes—even clustered as they have been recently—are growing pains and for every one of those mistakes, he makes a ton more. Sometimes good plays, like the pass to Jenkins, are completely overlooked.

Let's also take note of the fact that, like any successful quarterback, Ponder has shown a short memory for his mistakes. He doesn't mope, he doesn't dwell. He gets back up, dusts off and gets back under center.

That's vital for a young quarterback.

Going into the game against the Arizona Cardinals, it would be good to see him concentrate on making smarter decisions when under pressure and especially in situations like the goal-line interception against the Redskins.

If there is nothing there, get rid of the ball and live to fight another down. 

Play smarter, not harder, and don't try to do so much.

Against a solid corner like Patrick Peterson and a good defense, Ponder will be tested. 

We'll see if he can get back on track and protect the ball a bit better.

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Follow me on Twitter at @andrew_garda.


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