Those hoping to get a good preseason measure of Christian Ponder’s progress Friday night better not have brought a backpack or an oversized purse to Mall of America Field. There was little time to waste with emergency bag checks or unexpected returns to the parking lots. As it turned out, Ponder’s night on the field didn’t last long during the Vikings’ preseason opener against Houston.
Forty-three seconds of game time, to be exact.
The first: a 15-yard dart to Jerome Simpson for a first down. The second: another bullet toward Simpson, this one a bit out in front, hitting the receiver in the hand and bouncing into the arms of Houston safety Shiloh Keo. Interception.
That was it for Ponder. That was it for the first-unit offensive line and receivers, too, in a game the Texans broke open after halftime to win 27-13.
The pick? With a blitz coming, Ponder didn’t see exactly what he was expecting and couldn’t connect. Night over.
“It’s the first preseason game and I know a lot of these younger guys needed the work and everything,” Ponder said.
A reminder: No one was all that worried about Friday’s final result. The preseason opener, after all, is most valuable for assessing the bottom half of the roster and the lesser-known commodities. Which is why Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Kevin Williams and Brian Robison were among the starters not in pads when the night began.
The adrenalizing preseason tease came instead from Cordarrelle Patterson, whose advertised swiftness with the ball in his hands was evident on the opening kickoff, which the rookie receiver returned 50 yards, just one cut away from taking it the distance.
“That thing opened up so big,” Patterson said. “I wasn’t even expecting it to open up like that. … I thought I had it to the house, man.”
Patterson was equally impressive on offense, catching four passes for 54 yards in the first half.
“The opening kickoff obviously was a big one,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “But then some of the catches he made on those inside breaking routes [too]. And he showed some ability to break some tackles there. So that was very encouraging.”
And give undrafted rookie Zach Line a nod of approval for delivering the night’s biggest play, a 61-yard touchdown reception on a dump off from Matt Cassel early in the second quarter. Line slipped a pair of tackles on his rumble to the end zone and picked up a key downfield block from Stephen Burton.
“As I came out of the backfield, I saw that it was pretty wide open,” Line said. “I knew they were going to flow over the top. That’s when I saw Stephen coming over; [he] made it easy for me. Seriously, it was like a chariot riding down the sidelines until the very end.”
That score was part of a night for Cassel (12-for-19, 212 yards, 96.8 rating) that had its moments as the Vikings piled up 247 yards before halftime with the backup quarterback leading three scoring drives. But Cassel also matched Ponder with an interception, on an ill-advised throw across the field toward John Carlson.
Frazier’s plan had always been for the first-team offense to play just one series. But after that opening drive ended so abruptly, it was a decision that seemed, at the very least, peculiar for an offense that still has so much to polish.
After only two snaps, it might not have been a terrible idea to tweak the plan, providing a second series to establish a rhythm and to at least give Ponder something more constructive on which to build.
“There was a temptation,” Frazier said. “But then I had to remind myself of why we made the decision that we were going to go one series. We talked about it — whether it was two plays, three plays, 10 plays. We’ll have some opportunities to get our [first unit] a lot more work. But we really need to look at some other guys and find out who’s going to be able to help our football team.”
Ponder’s early exit meant an extended look at Cassel, who spread his 12 completions around to eight receivers, knocking away some rust and getting his first chance to establish his timing in a new system.
The Vikings will return to practice in Mankato on Sunday with four days of training camp to finish. Their second preseason game will be Friday night in Buffalo.