Why Has Christian Ponder Collapsed Down the Home Stretch?
Even for the Vikings, whose passing game wouldn't be mistaken for prolific by anyone, that was bad.
As poor as the receivers are without Percy Harvin, as good as the Packers played on defense, the ultimate responsibility lies with quarterback Christian Ponder.
Ponder began this season playing solid, if unspectacular, football. If he wasn't lighting the league on fire, he was doing well enough to show progress as a young quarterback and not losing the game through bad decisions.
Then Week 5 happened and not only did the wheels come off the wagon, but the wagon caught on fire and flew off a cliff.
From Week 5 onward, Ponder had exactly one game without an interception. This weekend was not unique for the last eight games.
Let's take a look at Sunday's mistakes and see what they show us in a wider view of the season.
For Ponder, the first was the worst.
The interception at the start of the third quarter was devastating for a number of reasons.
First of all, it robbed the Vikings of the momentum from both having a lead coming out of halftime as well as a big Adrian Peterson run to kick off the half.
Secondly, when you have a chance to score on the Packers and add to a lead, you cannot screw it up. Being up by four is all well and good, but against the Packers it's rarely enough.
In the end, of course it wasn't.
Several things happened on the play which led to Ponder's horrible throw.
On the play, Ponder walked to the line with the offense in a tightly bunched formation. He had a wide receiver left and one just off tackle on the right.
While it was set up with several options, it seemed clear that tight end Kyle Rudolph was—as is often the case—Ponder’s first read.
Ponder ran a play fake designed to get Packers’ linebacker Erik Walden to bite and jump in, which would leave Rudolph open in the flat, hopefully with a clear field ahead of him.
Unfortunately, Walden didn’t bite and stayed with Rudolph, eliminating that option.
Rudolph waved his hand at Ponder—it appeared to signal he had inside position and could take a throw—but Ponder wisely decided not to risk it.
That's where the wisdom began and ended.
The next domino fell because of left guard Charlie Johnson, who appeared to quit on his block, allowing defensive lineman Mike Neal to have a clear lane to Ponder.
Watching the play, Johnson looked like he expected Ponder to stay in the pocket, which seemed to show there was some miscommunication on the play.
Neal came hard at Ponder who, to his credit, was able to avoid him and head upfield towards the line of scrimmage.
Meanwhile, Rudolph did a good job of holding his block on Walden at this point and certainly gave Ponder an excellent chance to gain some yards and set up a reasonable third down.
Ponder didn't look to run though—he wanted to throw and kept his eyes downfield looking for someone. The problem was there wasn't anyone.
Receiver Michael Jenkins slid across the back of the end zone but Packers’ safety Morgan Burnett was in near-perfect position.
Jenkins had made a sharp cut and almost lost Burnett, but was still covered. Either Ponder didn’t see him at all or thought he could thread the needle—neither was a good choice, especially on second down when he could have thrown the ball away or ran for a short gain.
Add to it that Ponder was on the run, throwing the opposite direction, across his body and there is little positive to see in the play.
This is the issue with Ponder and was evident in both interceptions—he misses something obvious and makes a poor choice. We've discussed this as far back as early October when this all started.
Ponder has a habit of trying to do too much, of throwing the ball where it shouldn't go instead of throwing it away and trying to fit the ball in spots it can't go.
Looking back at some losses—such as the ones against the Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers—you start to see that Ponder's poor choices definitely cost the team some games.
Even throws that aren't interceptions hurt and are drive killers, costing the Vikings in all three of those games.
While this been happening for some time, it's really come home to roost during this last stretch of games in part because these games are so much more critical, as many are divisional games.
Of course, if they had won one or two of the aforementioned games, these games might be less critical.
The second interception had a lot of the same elements that the end zone pick did, with an added twist.
Ponder is not driving the ball.
This can be a problem, but many quarterbacks—most recently Andy Dalton in Cincinnati—overcome it with accuracy and sharp decision-making.
It doesn't hurt to have an A.J. Green either, which until recently, Ponder did with Percy Harvin.
While it's not the only reason he's struggled, Ponder definitely misses Harvin. On the other hand, Harvin can't help when the throws can be timed by a sundial.
For this play, the Vikings had three men wide, and Kyle Rudolph off tackle on the right.
As he dropped back, Ponder looked (not unlike last interception) for Kyle Rudolph. He does scan the field quickly, but the tight end is the guy he trusts and looks for.
It strikes you at this point in the game that Ponder might not have much trust in his wide receivers. He hasn't targeted them often and he constantly looks for Rudolph, a guy who can make freakish catches (he one-handed a pass behind his head) no matter how bad the pass.
What that means is he missed two potential better options, each along the sideline. If you look at the first cap for this sequence, the defender played well off of the receiver.
If Ponder saw that, he's got a pretty easy catch and run set up—but he doesn't.
Meanwhile, as the sequence goes, you can see Jarius Wright take off up the sideline then cut sharply back towards the line of scrimmage and the sideline.
Wright had great position and again, a sharp throw is a guaranteed first down. Instead he waited for Rudolph to get open, which he did.
Rudolph had a few steps on—guess who?—Morgan Burnett and cut toward the sideline.
What happened next is a combination of a mediocre throw by Ponder and an exceptional play by Burnett.
One second Burnett was too far away, the next it's like he had teleported in front of Rudolph.
However, as fast as Burnett was, Ponder's throw was slow. If you watch the play live the ball takes forever to reach Rudolph. Perhaps Burnett's speed and instincts would have allowed him to jump the pass anyway.
As I said before, the play is a great one by the Packers safety. When the ball is that slow getting to the receiver though, all sorts of bad things can happen. Why is this coming to light more clearly now?
Simply put, the quality of the opponents has gotten better. The Bears and Seahawks boast two of the best secondaries in the league. While Green Bay is battered and depleted, the overall quality of the secondary is solid.
Ponder got away with it before because the defenses weren't this opportunistic.
The problem is, they face some of those same defenses again over the last frame. The Bears and Packers are both on the schedule again and when they head to Houston, cornerback Jonathan Joseph is likely to be healthy enough to play.
The problems which were there a few months ago are still there today, magnified by the quality of the opponents they are seeing.
Ponder had better make some better decisions and fast before he forces the Vikings to make one he might not be happy with.
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