Christian Ponder couldn't sell girl scout cookies right now at the Mall of America. If he was a ringing Santa trying to help feed the poor, he would be handed coal. The Vikings' fans are so mad they can't see straight.
There is good reason for anger. Minnesota had four turnovers. Ponder was intercepted three times and fumbled once. After Adrian Peterson's opening 78 yard touchdown, the running game went dead. The Lions amassed 469 yards, 28 first downs, and held the ball for over 36 minutes. After a 14-6 start for the Purple, they were outscored 28-10.
And the fans are right to be angry. Ponder played poorly. But before we start grabbing pitchforks we should realize what else did not go well...
The Lions running back combination of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell totaled 115 yards on the ground and two scores. But through the air they were even more impressive. The same two combined to catch nine balls for 168 yards and another score. All in all, 283 total yards from the two running backs.
Meanwhile, of the top seven tacklers Sunday for Minnesota, five were defensive backs. Chad Greenway, who seemed a step slow all game, finished with five tackles. No other linebacker had more than two. Harrison Smith had seven to lead the team along with Jarmaca Sanford. When your two safeties are doing all the tackling, you are usually losing.
The defense could not get off the field. The Lions converted only 5 of 13 3rd down attempts. That is a reasonable percentage to hold a team to in their home stadium. But giving up 469 yards and 28 first downs means Detroit was having a lot of success on the first two downs. The Lions ran 77 plays to Minnesota's 53. Matthew Stafford finished with a net passing of 352 yards. He was sacked only once, by Jared Allen on a botched play.
And that is what should really make fans angry. It was not as if the Lions played a perfect game.They shot themselves in the foot more times than Quicks-Draw-McGraw. Stupid penalties killed interception returns for touchdowns or stalled out early drives. For a while, it appeared Detroit was as bad as their preseason suggested.
But Minnesota paid back the favor in a crucial series where Letroy Guion was flagged for roughing the passer on an incomplete pass on 3rd and long. Later in the drive a defensive holding penalty converted another 3rd down for Detroit. And where the Lions found ways to overcome their penalties, Minnesota did not.
After Detroit gained a lead Minnesota was suddenly without a run game, and left to Ponder finding open receivers while in the pocket against pass defenses. He could not. The pocket crumbled, he made poor decisions, and Minnesota lost the turnover total 4-2.
And the game.
Credit is due to Detroit's front seven. They played well. They may be undisciplined idiots, but they are strong and can outplay Minnesota's present offensive line. Ponder's fumble, a poor hand-off to Peterson as he fell backward, was created by right guard Brandon Fusco getting knocked so far into the backfield that he tripped poor Christian.
After Adrian's long TD run to start the game, the Lions took AP out of the equation. His final 17 carries netted him 15 yards. He caught four passes, but only for 18 yards.
And he was not alone feeling left out. Kyle Rudolph, whom many expected to be the top receiver in this game, finished with 27 yards on only two catches. Greg Jennings had 3 catches for 33 yards.. Other than Jerome Simpson's 7 catches for 140 yards, no one did much of anything. And even Simpson has to take some responsibility for the first interception as the ball appeared to bounce off of his hands before being housed for a score.Not a good throw, but if you get your hands on it, there should be a catch. Luckily, idiot Suh's cheap-shot of center John Sullivan during the return to wipe out the score.
Ponder played poorly, no defending that.
But one can easily defend the idea that many played poorly. I was impressed with Simpson, Harrison Smith and the rest of the secondary. After that, not too much. Even the rookie punter looked bad. Coaches were slow to adjust. All in all, a poor performance by most everyone.
On a separate side note.... Ponder's 2011 draft class struggled for the most part.
Top pick Cam Newton led his Panthers team to seven points in a home loss, with only 243 net team offensive yards and 119 net passing yards.
10th selected (two ahead of Ponder) Blaine Gabbert helped his Jaguars team to two points at home versus the Chiefs. Gabbert was 19-41 in passing for a net 107 yards. His team totaled 178 yards.
8th selected Jake Locker led his team to a 16-9 win on the road vs. the Steelers. Locker was 11-20 for 117 net passing yards. The saving statistic: no turnovers.
Both Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick played well as the 35th and 36th selections form that draft. Kaepernick defeated the Packers at home, while Dalton's efforts were thwarted by two interceptions and a comeback loss to the Bears in Chicago.
Other quarterbacks that lost include Brandon Weeden at home, Ben Roethlisberger at home, and Matt Ryan on the road. Some had bad days. Some pretty good. But half the teams have to lose each week.
Christian Ponder finished with 225 net passing yards, 18-28 in passing. His team netted 330 yards. The four turnovers were too much to overcome. He looked shaky at times. Other times, pretty good. He made an athletic move to get AP his 3rd touchdown of the game. He made a few good throws to Simpson. But for the most part he looked like a lot of guys starting for their NFL teams from the 2011 class.
Inexperienced and prone to error. Let's hope for changes by next week's visit to Chicago.
Week One at the Detroit Lions...
I remember watching then Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez being taunted in Yankee Stadium, "Who's Your Da-ddy". I appreciated both Pedro's candor and humor when he fed this line to the media. What made it so endearing was that it was true. Martinez was overmatched that year by the eventual World Series Champion..
The Minnesota Vikings have a 68-33-2 edge on Detroit Lions in their entire history. The more than 2:1 edge was improved in last year's sweep. Minnesota owns Detroit.
Add to that fact Minnesota won its' last four games, finished hot at 10-6, and made the playoffs. The Lions, on the other hand, lost their last eight consecutive games, to finish 4-12. After making the playoffs, and sweeping Minnesota in 2011, Detroit returned to the abyss otherwise known as the basement of the NFC North.
Critics of the Vikes-are-Lions-Daddy theory will point to factors in disagreeing.
Detroit was 2nd in passing last year. Minnesota's pass defense was ranked 31st. In Calvin Johnson, drafted five picks before Adrian Peterson in 2007, the Lions have the top yardage gainer in the NFL at wide receiver. Minnesota's weakness is in pass defense.
The Lions feel they have improved their run defense, led by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle. Detroit spent an early pick on DE Ziggy Ansah. He suffered a concussion this preseason, but is expected to play and to be a major contributor throughout the year. Vikings' quarterback Christian Ponder saw pressure greater than most NFL QBs last year. While Minnesota's run blocking is awesome, its' pass blocking is not highly respected.
The addition of Reggie Bush improves both the run and pass game. Bush had 88 receptions in addition to rushing the ball last year for Miami. Bush's athleticism is expected to give Matthew Stafford better looks in opponent's secondary. Bush is considered a serious upgrade from last year's rookie Mikel LeShoure.
Minnesota will play without two key players in this season opener. DT Kevin Williams is listed out as of Friday, a victim of a cheap shot by the 49ers guard Joe Looney. Williams has a significant knee contusion along with a strain to something called the posterior capsular. Jerome Felton, the star fullback who paved Peterson's path in 2012, is out for the first few games due to a league suspension. That hurts Minnesota's offense more than a little.
And these all may be true.
But there are some red flags to that thought that should be the catalyst for a Minnesota victory.
First, Detroit lost eight straight games last year because Minnesota shredded them in Week Ten. The Lions were coming off a 17 point win over the Jaguars that had followed an win over the Seattle Seahawks. The Lions were 4-4 when they faced Minnesota in the Metrodome with hopes of returning to the playoffs still alive. Peterson ran for 171 yards and Christian Ponder completed 24-32 for 221 yards and two TDs. The Lions would go on to lose a series of close games until they basically quit playing.
This preseason, the Lions 1st string unit scored one time in 17 possessions. Matthew Stafford completed less than 50% of his passes. While Lions faithful insist their team will hold its' home advantage publicly; on their private blogs and discussions, they are really worried.
And they should be.
The Lions' offensive line is suspect. 2nd year left tackle Riley Reiff starts his new job with trying to block Jared Allen and Everson Griffen. Detroit also has new starters at right guard in rookie Larry Worford and right tackle Jason Fox. While Kevin Williams will be unavailable don't expect much of a let down with a DT rotation that includes rookie Sharrif Floyd, Fred Evans, and Letroy Guion. Stafford will be pressured.
The Lions are the oldest team in the NFL. Some theorize that is due to poor drafting and a need to compensate with free agent spending. That might not be a problem if you were say the New England Patriots and had a Tom Brady that makes everyone look good. But when you are coming off a 4-12 season, and stare up at the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and the Vikings, you have to wonder what the long term plan is.. or if anyone is planning.
The 2013 season will certainly not be decided by this first game. It may be a Calvin Johnson vs. Adrian Peterson type game. Or both teams may spend all their time worried about the stars, and guys like Kyle Rudolph or the Lions' Ryan Broyles make the difference. Neither team should put more on this game than the 1/16 it deserves. But we fans are different. We are looking for immediate answers to our hopes and/or doubts.
We may not know what will become of 2013 after tomorrow, but we might get a good hint...
The Vikings cut down to 53 players. There were not too many surprises. Again this season we learned that success vs. back-ups in preseason does not equate to a roster spot. CB Bobby Felder looked good at times. RB Joe Banyard provided the only speed of the preseason. So did WRs Rodney Smith and Stephen Burton. LB Tyrone McKenzie made some plays as well. All gone.
A few players were placed on lists that were neither cuts nor the active roster. Jerome Felton, the team's Pro Bowl fullback is suspended along with OT DeMarcus Love. DT Christian Ballard is presently (un)-excused from the team. OL Seth Olsen was placed on injured reserve following a scary hit during the final preseason game. WR Greg Childs will be on the PUP list.
Rick Spielman stated during the final preseason game that he was going to keep the best players, whether or not that meant loading certain positions at the sake of others. Minnesota kept an abundance of defensive linemen and linebackers. Included in these extras might be linemen: Chase Baker and George Johnson; and linebackers: Gerald Hodges and Mike Mauti. Not really surprises, though nine DL and eight LB might be considered a wealth.
Spielman said the club would look to trade from their abundance to improve at weaker positions. In terms of numbers, there were only four RB kept and five WR. Joe Webb beat out the others for the last receiver spot. His play on special teams being the difference possibly. Zach Line's impressive preseason meant he will stay at least three more weeks until Felton returns. Argument could be made for need to upgrade at either spot.
But to this fan the biggest need is easily cornerback.
In researching top CB rankings you will be hard pressed to find any list that has a Viking in the top fifty or sixty. With the departure of Antoine Winfield, there is no cornerback respected well on the Minnesota roster. Our top CBs include Chris Cook, Josh Robinson, and rookie Xavier Rhodes. Last year teams had a great deal of success against Cook, Robinson, and backups A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels. In the preseason Cook was injured and Robinson struggled. Rhodes probably was the strongest of the top three. Sherels, playing against reserves, had a strong preseason culminating in a highlight reel final game. Jefferson played well enough to make the roster again.
The final two games vs. the Packers last year, both the season-ending win 37-34 in the Dome and the subsequent 24-10 wild-card loss in Green Bay, showcased the Vikings biggest problem defensively. In both games Green Bay spread their receivers. JerMichael Finley lined up outside, with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones. A three or four receiver spread offense was too much for the Vikings to handle with the present DBs. Aaron Rodgers was 51 for 73 passing, for 639 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions. Jennings caught 12 passes for 181 yards and two TDs. Jones 10 catches for 113 yards and a TD. Nelson six receptions for 138 yards and a score. It was too much for Minnesota to cover. And Randall Cobb was unavailable due to injury.
True, Rodgers is one of the best. There is no shame in being beaten by his arm. But his receivers are not exactly Jerry Rice or Randy Moss. Finley is renowned for his drops. They can be slowed... see Packers playoff loss to 49ers. Rodgers was intercepted once, no Packer gained 100 yards through the air, and he finished with 257 yards. Still good, but survivable given Green Bay's defense.
And therein lies Minnesota's biggest need. Shutdown corners.
Fans are hell-bent on vilifying QB Christian Ponder, meanwhile they settle for second rate corners. Not that the Vikings have been a hot-bed for great corners over their history, but Antoine Winfield's image is still burned into our memories. His run-support was unparalleled. Given that our division also includes Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, it would make sense that we strengthen this position.
And Minnesota did this year by drafting Xavier Rhodes. He is physical and should be part of the solution in slowing the Northern Division's passing attacks. But those that remain have not set themselves apart. Cook has had issues with injuries and conduct. Robinson's speed has not equated into strong coverage, demonstrated by his opponent's passer rating. A.J. Jefferson joined at this time last year, but during games was burnt as frequently as Sherels when Minnesota's secondary became depleted.
Hopefully, Spielman can find a way to upgrade, or that each of our corners can improve enough to warrant no action. But with a schedule full of top-level passers, some are worried that is our true Achilles heel.
Not necessarily quarterback.
There I said it.
I know the majority is ready to hang the guy. And the truth be told he has been hard to defend at times. But Christian Ponder showed in yesterday's loss to the 49ers that he has a good arm. He made some good throws, despite pressure from a strong 49ers rush. Ponder completed 17 of 23 passes, albeit many were for short yardage. His only interception appeared to be more a case of a receiver stopping a route than a poor throw. A miscommunication at the worst. And the defense Ponder faced was bringing twisting blitzes and loaded with secondary talent.
And all this without Jerome Felton and Adrian Peterson. It cannot be understated how different the Vikings' offense is without the two Pro Bowler in the backfield. Felton is simply on of the best blocking backs in the game. His bone-jarring blocks and ability to protect the passer are the reasons he was selected by his peers to the Pro Bowl. And Adrian Peterson is not only the best running back today, he is among the best ever. Taking those two out of the arsenal is like telling Superman he can't fly or use his strength. Telling Spider-Man he can't spin webs or jump around. The Vikings' offense without these two is not an offense. It is offensive.
And it is with that knowledge that I fully endorse Christian Ponder.
Ponder led the Vikings from a 3-13 record to a 10-6 mark. Sure, Peterson was easily the biggest reason as to why, but not the only one. Ponder had big games vs. big teams. Minnesota was 3-4 vs. playoff teams with Ponder at the helm. In five of those games, Ponder's passer rating was over 80. Three of them over 90. And he was over 110 in two. Despite five of those seven games being on the road vs. playoff caliber teams, Ponder wasn't bad. Combined in these seven games he had 138 completions in 227 attempts, throwing eleven touchdowns with five interceptions. He also averaged near five carries for twenty four yards per game. Not elite numbers, but decent.
Despite those facts, fans are unwilling to see the good in Ponder. Most of these fans have been angry since Christian was drafted 12th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. Maybe they had their hearts set on Andy Dalton, chosen 35th? Of course, Colin Kaepernick was chosen 36th, another in a long line of missed quarterbacks by Spielman and his predecessors, the angry fan says. Or they were upset we did not trade up and draft Blaine Gabbert (10th) or Jake Locker (8th)? Who knows why so many have written off Ponder?
He is going to have a good year.
In the last six NFL Drafts we have seen franchise quarterbacks swooped up. In five of those years a quarterback was drafted first, and the other third. All but one of those picks are presently starting for their perspective teams (JaMarcus Russell the exception). Three have made the playoffs (Matt Ryan four times and Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford once each). That is it. Ponder did with a 3-13 team something that Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, and Russell could not. Get to the playoffs.
For every starting quarterback drafted, there are many more who have not panned out. Just in those same last six drafts, names like: Ryan Mallett, Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez, Pat White, Brian Brohm, Kevin O'Connell, Brady Quinn, John Beck, Drew Stanton, and Trent Edwards, have all been selected in the top three rounds. None are currently starting for anyone. Some may be progressing towards starting, while others never got a shot, or are on their way out.
Last year three rookie quarterbacks made a big splash in the NFL. Luck, Robert Griffin, and Russell Wilson demonstrated that a strong quarterback can be found in an instant. Whether it was with the first pick (Luck), or in the case of Wilson, the seventy-fifth, the 2012 season was the year of the young quarterback. Each made the playoffs. There is no denying that talent of these three quarterbacks. But only Wilson was available of the three to all but two teams. And no one could have predicted his success would come so soon. Though, if we thought about it, he was competing with Tarvaris Jackson.
Among highly-drafted 2nd year quarterbacks, Ponder was one of three to lead his team to the playoffs. Dalton and Kaepernick were the others. The top three quarterbacks from that draft (Newton, Locker, Gabbert) team's combined to average five wins each. You may not like what Ponder is doing, but you should be a lot happier than Titans, Panthers, and Jaguars fans.
Now is his time.
Fans are generally stubborn. Once hated, always hated. Many will never give Ponder a chance. The Vikings could go 12-4 this year, get to the NFC Championship, and if we lose blame it on Christian. Maybe the memory of Brett Favre's historical season is too fresh? Maybe we long for seasons like Randall Cunningham's 1998 year? Maybe we all have Fran Tarkenton on the brain?
If we took a moment to reflect we might think different. Didn't Gus Frerotte and T-Jack win a division together? How can anyone think that those two together could do that? The answer is easy. They had Adrian Peterson. They had a great pass rush. Sometimes you can win without Bradfords and Russells leading your team. Not every team had to have an Aaron Rodgers. And if you want a chuckle, check out his first few years in passer rating. In this town, he would have been dismissed.
No. I think Ponder is the right guy for the job. We need a quarterback who can throw solid passes against good teams. Last year Ponder did that. We need a quarterback who will not turn the ball over like Daunte Culpepper, after his Pro Bowl year. In the seven games vs. playoff teams, Ponder had only five picks. He has zero in the last two games, must wins to make the playoffs. He is your man. And we need someone to give the ball to Peterson.
Anyone can do that.
Most NFL fans will tell you that the preseason does not matter. Teams do not 'show' anything, often star players play little or none, and games often come down to 3rd and 4th stringers squaring off in the 4th quarter. So the fact that Minnesota is 0-2 is not alarming. Presently the Atlanta Falcons are winless this preseason. So are the Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, a look at teams who are undefeated still in preseason (Seattle, New Orleans, Washington, Houston) is a who's who for prognosticators. Most experts have these four teams higher up in expectation. The Seahawks, maybe the NFC favorite to get to the Super Bowl, have outscored their opponents 88-30 in three games. The Redskins, another favorite to at least return to the playoffs, has outscored their opponents 76-41 in their three wins. Some teams and coaches have put an emphasis on winning in these tune-up games.
Minnesota has not.
In the third week of the preseason we fans finally get to see first team offenses and defenses for more than a series or two. Guys like RB Adrian Peterson show up. Not that AP wanted to sit out the first two games, I am sure he did not. But anyone who watched the first two games this preseason will tell you this offense more than needs Peterson. Without their star running back, the Vikings are relegated to plodding efforts from RB Toby Gerhart and a pass attack vs. a defense not afraid of the run. As rough as QB Christian Ponder has been at times in his first few years, it gets rougher when he is facing pass rushes without his starting running backs.
For while Peterson is sorely missed on offense, we also learned how valuable Pro Bowl Fullback Jerome Felton is to the team. He has been held out of games this preseason like his running mate. RB Matt Asiata and others have filled in, but their is a glaring drop in talent from starters to reserve when it comes to running backs for the Vikings. And that is not meant to be a slam on Asiata, or Gerhart, but rather a long-winded compliment of our backfield, which is maybe the best in football.
So tonight we get to see our starters for a lengthy period. Or at least most of them. Felton is still not expected to play, and without him, I doubt Peterson will stay in more than a few series. WR Jarius Wright will not play. DT Sharrif Floyd, one of the three first-round picks, will not play. MLB Erin Henderson was dinged in practice and may not play as much as he otherwise would.
As for the Vikings faithful, I would say many remain skeptical.
Sure, there will always be fans who predict 10-12 win seasons every year. They bleed purple, love whomever is quarterback, and have named their pets after current players. I overheard a man call his large dog "Fusco" the other day. These fans will think nothing of an 0-4 preseason, nor become concerned about such things as owner fraud, injuries, or offensive schemes. They just want to be able to wear purple and beat Green Bay. Adrian Peterson will certainly carry them to the Promised Land.
The majority of home fans are skeptical. They saw a lackluster effort vs. the Bills last week as a sign all is not well. They doubt Ponder's ability to throw under pressure. Many are concerned that Leslie Frazier is not the right guy. They are further concerned the Lions and Bears may both be better than Minnesota in 2013, and that last year was a fluke. Further, these fans see Ziggy Wilf's troubles as a sign we may lose the stadium. If tonight's game does not go well for Minnesota, this will be the proof that our cynical brethren need to predict an 8-8 or worse record. They are a waiting to be angry group.
And then their are the extremists. Kind of a local fan-terrorists. They spend their Sundays cursing at the television. Or laughing. They almost enjoy when the team loses so that they can find their purple-bleeding friends and make fun of them. They have predicted failure and relish in it. They are certain that they could do a better job than Ponder, coach Frazier, or GM Rick Spielman. Every dropped pass, missed block, or whiff on a tackle is proof to these fans that there will never be a team like that of the 1970s. They have already tried and convicted Ziggy, and sold our team to Los Angeles. These were once bleeding purple fans, who may have suffered too great in the 1970s, 1987, 1998, or 2009. Too many close calls changed them from die-hards to haters.
Tonight we face the 49ers. Our fan-base is at the ready....
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