For Vikings' Ponder and Jennings, it's sync or sink

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2013 - 3:25 PM

Christian Ponder and Greg Jennings are still at the getting-acquainted stage in the Vikings’ passing game.

Sure, it was only preseason. But Greg Jennings’ Vikings debut left him unsatisfied.

Two plays, 49 seconds.

That’s how long the first-unit offense was on the field during last week’s loss to Houston. And with starting quarterback Christian Ponder directing both of his passes to Jerome Simpson — a 15-yard completion and a misfired interception — Jennings had little opportunity to show his new home crowd the playmaking energy he hopes to infuse into the Vikings’ needy passing attack.

On the first play, Jennings ran an 8-yard comeback route out of the slot, followed by a simple in route on the next snap.

The ball never came his way.

After that, his night was over with coach Leslie Frazier sticking to the plan to remove the starting offense after one series.

“You hope for a good series,” Jennings said. “But when you have the result that we had it’s like, ‘Aw, can we get one more series?’ But it is what it is.”

It’s understandable why Jennings is so antsy to see game action. Through three weeks of training camp, he’s been judged as a talker more than a receiver, his every sentence scrutinized and combed for something juicy and sensational.

At this point, Jennings would much rather have his receiving abilities under the microscope. So maybe Friday’s preseason game in Buffalo will provide a fitting page turn.

More than anything, it gives the Vikings an opportunity to polish their evolving passing attack in game speed.

Jennings wants the offense to pass several key tests.

“Sustaining drives. Moving the ball down the field. Getting some rhythm,” he said. “It’s kind of getting our feet underneath us. Any time you get into a game, it’s a different speed. It’s different momentum. So you tend to get fatigued a little quicker.”

Chemistry experiment

It might only be preseason, but Ponder certainly soon needs to provide evidence he is making strides with his accuracy and decision-making. He must also find a rhythm with a receiving corps that’s mostly new to him.

Jennings was a Packer last year. Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson was at the University of Tennessee. And Simpson and Jarius Wright combined to play 19 games with 48 catches for 584 yards and two touchdowns.

So yeah, the Vikings need to establish timing within their passing attack before the Sept. 8 season opener at Detroit. And they’ll have Friday’s game in Buffalo and an Aug. 25 game at San Francisco to push things along.

“We want to jell,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “We want to get a rapport with one another, with our comfort level, our rhythm. And we are doing that at practice, but it is different in the game. We will keep working in that direction so we can be really good by Detroit. That’s the whole game — get to Detroit healthy and in rhythm.”

With Adrian Peterson sitting out last week, the Vikings had 37 passing plays vs. 15 runs, a far different balance than they’ll ever show in the regular season. But for coach Leslie Frazier, that’s by design, an acknowledgment that the timing in the passing game is a priority.

“We want to be more efficient in that area,” Frazier said, “so it will be a point of emphasis again.”

A new feel

In March, four days after trading last year’s top receiver Percy Harvin to Seattle, the Vikings signed Jennings with an expectation that the eighth-year vet could immediately become Ponder’s top target.

But for Jennings to have a chance at posting his fourth career 1,000-yard season, he and Ponder must continue getting in sync. That in itself was a work in progress during training camp because of Jennings’ unique movements in his route running, nuances Ponder continues feeling out.

“The way he attacks leverage and stuff, he has a lot of movement with his body and his head,” Ponder said. “Which is great. He does a great job of getting open. But it’s a little different when you watch him on film. … I don’t think it’s timing. But if you watch his angles and how he comes out of cuts, it’s different.”

Added Frazier: “If he’s going to run an out route for example, he’s not just going to run straight up the field and break out. He’s going to stem the defensive back inside to try and get his hips turned or his feet out of whack and then he’ll break out. And when he releases from press coverage, he’s not a guy who’s going to release into you. He does a lot of shaking at the line of scrimmage. So for a quarterback, you have to adjust to how he runs his routes.”

Among the many strides Ponder made in Mankato, he learned to better understand Jennings’ movements. Now comes another test at game speed against an unfamiliar opponent with so many moving parts of the passing game needing to be calibrated.

“We want to see a high level of execution,” Ponder said. “We’re trying to keep developing this passing game and striving for greatness in that area. And we want to get some of those young guys to keep progressing, which they are. I think these next two games are crucial for us as a first-team offense.”

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