Criticism of Christian Ponder reached fever pitch Monday as Vikings fans fumed over the quarterback’s performance in the season opener.
The intense reaction was predictable after Ponder tossed three interceptions and fumbled once in a 34-24 loss to the Detroit Lions. His mistakes served as a symbol of a game that went haywire shortly after Adrian Peterson’s 78-yard touchdown run on the first offensive play of the season.
The Vikings problems didn’t just stop with Ponder, though.
Their offensive line struggled against Detroit’s physical front four, which turned the running game into rush-hour gridlock. And the coaching staff made some curious decisions that included limiting rookie wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson’s playing time.
It was a shaky first step for an offense that returned its line intact and upgraded its talent at receiver with the hope of becoming more balanced.
“It was a tough day for our football team,” coach Leslie Frazier said.
Certainly for Ponder, but also for his line, which figured to be a team strength after it returned all five starters from a group that started all 16 games together last season. But the quintet looked out of sync in the preseason and lost its matchup Sunday.
“We count on our offensive line to be a dominant factor for us, and we were not [against the Lions],” Frazier said.
That left Peterson literally with nowhere to run. He gained only 15 yards on the 17 carries following his opening highlight. Center John Sullivan noted the mistakes but believes the problems are fixable.
“I’m not going to say things aren’t clicking,” he said. “Obviously we had one big [play]. We just need to eliminate negative plays. It’s not what you want to do as a running offense, having 4- and 5-yard losses a couple times on first down. We just have to clean up a little bit and things will be totally smooth.”
Left tackle Matt Kalil, in particular, has played below the standard he set as a rookie. Frazier cited Kalil’s fundamentals in critiquing his play.
“Just some basic things that he did so well a year ago that we’ve got to get him back to doing on a repeated basis,” Frazier said. “We’re going to have to do some technique and fundamental work to really get him back to a good foundation because we need him to play well every snap.”
The line’s ineffectiveness wasn’t the only head-scratching development. Patterson, the first-round draft pick, played only five snaps, according to official NFL stats. Patterson was limited in practice last week because of a back issue, but Frazier said that had no bearing on his playing time.
“He’s healthy,” Frazier said. “We’re going to try and get him a few more snaps, but we need to get a few more first downs and stay on the field longer with our offense.”
The Vikings ran only 53 plays so the playbook shrunk some, but Frazier called Patterson’s light workload strictly a “coach’s decision.”
One play in particular provided a snapshot of their struggles. Trailing 20-14, the Vikings faced third-and-1 at the Detroit 34 midway through the third quarter. Rather than put the ball in Peterson’s hands, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave tried for deception.
Ponder faked a handoff to Peterson and rolled out to his left. Nobody blocked Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy, who had a free path to Ponder. Under pressure, Ponder rushed his throw, which sailed high and behind his target, tight end John Carlson.
The Vikings had to settle for a 52-yard field goal by Blair Walsh.
“Just the decision we made,” Frazier said of the third-down play call. “We could have done either-or. We chose to pass.”
The move backfired, which pretty much summed up the day.