No factor in the Minnesota Vikings' Week 1 matchup with the Detroit Lions will have a bigger say in which NFC North team starts the season 1-0 than Minnesota's ability (or inability) to protect quarterback Christian Ponder.
Ponder's decision-making was drastically worse when pressure arrived last season.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ponder was under pressure on 178 of his dropbacks in 2012. He completed just 52 of 129 passes (40.3 percent) for 524 yards (4.1 yards per attempt), three touchdowns and six interceptions in those situations.
Few quarterbacks were worse with rushers crowding the pocket.
His completion percentage of 40.3 and passer rating of 41.0 were both among the bottom five of starting quarterbacks. Overall, PFF graded Ponder at minus-10.6 against pressure, which played a big factor in the Vikings quarterback finishing 34th out of 38 qualifying players at his position in 2012.
Yet when the Vikings kept Ponder protected in the pocket, the former 12th-overall pick actually looked like a franchise quarterback.
Facing no pressure, Ponder completed 248 of 354 passes (70.1 percent) for 2,411 yards (6.8), 15 touchdowns and six interceptions over 377 snaps. His passer rating was 95.9.
The jump in his numbers was staggering. Ponder completed 29.8 percent more of his passes and averaged 2.7 more yards per attempt without pressure. With a clean pocket, his passer rating rose 54.9 points. No other starting quarterback had a bigger gap in his passer rating last season.
Two games against the Lions in 2012 followed Ponder's season-long script.
In Minnesota's Week 4 win over Detroit, Ponder faced pressure 10 times on 29 dropbacks. He completed one of his seven passes for just 12 yards and two sacks. Without pressure, he connected on 15 of 19 attempts and didn't have a turnover.
Six weeks later, the Vikings protected Ponder on 23 of his 36 dropbacks. He proceeded to torch the Lions' secondary in these situations, completing 18 of 22 passes (81.8 percent) for 140 yards and two touchdowns (a 123.5 passer rating).
Overall, Ponder tallied just 93 yards on 17 attempts (5.5) and was sacked four times against Detroit's pressure last season. He completed 33 of 41 passes with two scores and no turnovers without it.
Keeping Ponder clean against one of the game's most talented front fours will certainly be a difficult task for the Vikings' offensive line.
Not only are Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley arguably the top pass-rushing duo of defensive tackles in football, but defensive ends Jason Jones and Israel Idonije were added in free agency, while the fifth overall pick was spent on raw but ultra-talented pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah.
The Lions possess the rare ability to bring pressure from both the edge and interior of the pocket, and the defense has also experimented in the preseason with moving the four starters around the defensive line. On a few occasions, Jones and Ansah shifted inside to create additional matchup problems.
Suh and Fairley will give the interior of the Vikings' offensive line a stern opening test.
The two combined for 13.5 sacks in 2012. According to PFF (subscription required), Suh and Fairley finished second and third respectively in pass-rushing productivity among defensive tackles (minimum 25 percent of defensive snaps). Only Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals was better. And overall, the duo delivered pressure on one of every eight pass-rushing snaps last season.
There are several ways for young quarterbacks to get better at handling pressure.
As experience in an offense increases at the quarterback position, the speed of the game tends to slow down. Progressions from the first to second to third option are made faster. The internal clock better indicates when the football should come out. In his third year, Ponder should be getting better at each.
The knowledge base in blitzes and protection schemes also increases. The blitzes that were successful against Ponder last season should now be better recognized before the snap, which would then allow protections to better compensate once the play is in motion.
Finally, the best quarterbacks in the game use subtle movements inside the pocket to both elude rushers and buy time. Taking off at the first sign of pressure only complicates certain protections. Maturity inside the pocket allows offenses to attack defenses instead of panicking.
The Vikings will need Ponder to develop these weapons against pressure this season. The Lions might be a perfect measuring stick for that progress in Week 1, as a terrific front four should present Ponder and the Vikings' offensive line with a difficult test to kick off the season.