Matt Cassel's Pocket Presence a Point of Separation from Christian Ponder

Tim ArcandCorrespondent IDecember 17, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 13: Matt Cassel #16 of the Minnesota Vikings passes the ball during the first quarter of the game against the Carolina Panthers on October 13, 2013 at Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Panthers defeated the Vikings 35-10. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

After spending most of the season backing Christian Ponder as the starting quarterback, head coach Leslie Frazier and the Minnesota Vikings have changed their minds and are going with Matt Cassel. A tweet from CBS Sports reports that Cassel will finish the season as the starter. 

So, what took so long? 

Perhaps, it was the fact that the Vikings drafted Ponder in Frazier's first full season as head coach, or perhaps, Frazier truly believed that Ponder could develop into a decent quarterback if only given enough of a chance. 

No matter the reason, this is something many fans have been asking for since Cassel led the Vikings to a 34-27 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4. 

When a concussion forced Ponder out of the game against the Bears in Week 13, it gave Cassel another chance to prove that he gives the Vikings a better chance of winning. 

According to Pro Football Reference, both Ponder and Cassel have won two games this season. But that's only because the win over the Bears is credited to Ponder since he started the game. He finished only 3-of-8 passing for 40 yards.

In that game, Cassel stepped in and led the Vikings to a 23-20 overtime win. He finished 20-of-33 passing for 243 yards and a touchdown. His passer rating was 80.7, compared to 54.2 for Ponder.

Since that game, Cassel has only gotten better. He has completed 63 of 106 passes for 890 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. On Sunday, he outdueled Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles, who came into the game with the highest quarterback rating in the NFL among starters.

One thing that Cassel has done better than Ponder this season is avoiding the sack. 

Minnesota Vikings Quarterback Comparison
QuarterbackRecordCompAttYdsTDIntRateSacksSack %
Matt Cassel3-21021941,5049590.794.4
Christian Ponder1-6-11522391,6487977.92710.2
Pro Football Reference

He has been more decisive, making quicker reads, and either finding a receiver or getting rid of the ball before the defense has a chance to sack him. Cassel has only been sacked 4.4 percent of the time when he drops back to pass—for Ponder, it's over 10 percent of the time.

To put it another way, Ponder is sacked once for every 9.8 times he drops back to pass. Cassel is dropping back 22.7 times per sack. That means fewer sacks and fewer yards lost in a game.  

Cassel's 4.4 sack percentage this season is the lowest in his career since 2008, when he started 15 games for the Patriots. In his ninth NFL season, Cassel should have developed a better pocket presence than Ponder.

If Ponder was showing some improvement, it would be acceptable to continue to start him at quarterback each week. But the problem is that he has regressed in his third NFL season. His sack percentage this season is higher than his rookie season in 2011 when it was 9.3 percent.

Cassel demonstrated his pocket presence on the 57-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Greg Jennings. On a 2nd-and-4 from the 43-yard line, Cassel is in the shotgun formation with running back Joe Banyard (23) lined up to his right and tight end Rhett Ellison (40) to his left in the backfield. 

NFL Rewind

As the play develops, defensive lineman Fletcher Cox (91) applies pressure up the middle. He's picked up by Banyard, and Ellison picks up linebacker Mychal Kendricks (95).

NFL Rewind

Sensing pressure from linebacker Trent Cole (58), Cassel doesn't panic and take off running. Instead, he steps up in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield. 

NFL Rewind

As Cox slides off the block of Banyard, Cassel simply sidesteps him and gains a little more time. 

NFL Rewind

Cassel finds his target, sets his feet and delivers a strong pass downfield while stepping into the throw. 

NFL Rewind

He connects with Jennings, who has gotten behind three defenders for the touchdown. 

NFL Rewind

On this play, Cassel used his pocket presence to avoid the pressure, buy some time and find his receiver—all while keeping his eyes downfield and not panicking.        

The following play demonstrates Ponder's lack of pocket presence. Facing a 3rd-and-11 against the Lions in Week 1, Ponder is back in the shotgun with running back Adrian Peterson to his left. 

NFL Rewind

As the play develops, a pocket forms around Ponder. 

NFL Rewind

With no immediate pressure, Ponder pulls down the ball and takes off into an apparent running lane.

NFL Rewind

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley (98) slides off the block of guard Brandon Fusco (63) and tackles Ponder for a two-yard gain. 

NFL Rewind

While the play did not result in a sack, Ponder's impatience forced him to leave the pocket and attempt to gain the first down with his feet. The result was a 4th-and-9 and a punt for the Vikings.

It's simple, intangible things that are very difficult to coach, and it can make a difference on a play.

The result is the difference between a two-yard gain and a touchdown. The Vikings are finally making the right choice in sticking with Cassel at quarterback—at least for this season.