Blame is widespread for what ails Vikings' offense

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2012 - 9:43 PM

Quarterback Christian Ponder should expect a similar approach from Seattle.

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Christian Ponder

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Reporters milling around outside the doors at Winter Park were told that a rare Monday practice would end at 11:15 a.m. And yet here it was more than an hour later and nary a Viking had emerged.

It had been four days since the Vikings lost 36-17 to Tampa Bay as an entire nation raised its collective eyebrow, scoffed and went back to ignoring Minnesota. It also had been three days since coach Leslie Frazier and his staff assessed the damage and decided that a typical Monday walkthrough wouldn't suffice.

Not on this particular week. Not with Sunday's game at Seattle kicking off a rugged eight-game stretch that has the Vikings traveling five times and playing five games against teams currently with a winning record. And not when every finger on Zygi Wilf's payroll will be needed to plug all the leaks that sprang during the course of a nationally televised prime-time meltdown.

"It wasn't pretty," wide receiver Michael Jenkins said. "But we're 5-3. It's going to change. It's definitely going to change."

With one eye on Sunday's game, let's turn the other back 10 days to look at the film and examine the most prominent of many issues facing the Vikings this week:

Pressure!

The Vikings' inability to neutralize extra pass rushers, throw the ball efficiently under duress and provide open passing targets has been a problem for three consecutive games and will be tested at CenturyLink Field, where Seattle is 3-0 and has enjoyed a league-high 113 false-start penalties by opponents since 2005.

"I'm sure other teams will see what's happened and say, 'You know what, that's probably the blueprint,'" Frazier said.

He's probably right.

A closer look at five plays against the Buccaneers makes it easier to believe Frazier when he says the problem isn't isolated on Christian Ponder or any other one individual:

1. First quarter, third-and-5 from the Vikings 38-yard line.

Until the game got out of hand, the Bucs essentially played a base 5-2 front with an outside linebacker acting as a stand-up end designed to further cloud the running lanes for Adrian Peterson. With little respect for the Vikings passing game, the other two linebackers were moving toward the line of scrimmage before Ponder had shown run or pass. Throw in a safety who consistently sneaked forward before the snap and it's astonishing that Peterson can still top 100 yards rushing against defenses stacked to stop him.

"You see that and you just know we're going to hit some big plays in the passing game," Jenkins said. "It's just a chess match to call something at the right time. It'll come."

On this particular play, it didn't. The Bucs rushed five defenders, two of whom went through the same gap between left guard Charlie Johnson and left tackle Matt Kalil. Johnson blocked down and Kalil missed twice as safety Ronde Barber and linebacker Lavonte David passed untouched. Ponder had no chance and threw the ball away.

In the worst outing of an otherwise solid rookie season, Kalil played a role in two other breakdowns when the Bucs overloaded the left side. He also gave up a sack when he failed to reach defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim on a hard inside slant.

The Bucs rushed five or more defenders on 13 of the 42 plays on which Ponder dropped back to pass. It would have been more, but they rushed only three defenders eight times while protecting a big lead in the fourth quarter. Ponder was sacked three times, going down against eight- , four- and three-man rushes.

2. Second quarter, second-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 37.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave had the absolute perfect blitz-beater called when Barber came hard and untouched off the left edge. Peterson slipped by him, turned and caught a screen pass -- his only catch of the game. If Johnson had shielded linebacker Quincy Black, Peterson was gone. But Johnson missed his block, and Black made a tackle for a 4-yard gain. Two plays later, a punt.

3. Second quarter, first-and-10 from the Vikings 25.

Ponder can say he doesn't force the ball down the field. But in this case, he's either telling a fib or he's delusional. With 25 seconds left in the first half and the Vikings down 10, Frazier showed confidence in his struggling 24-year-old quarterback by calling a bootleg right with options deep or underneath to Percy Harvin.

With Harvin wide open and plenty of time to make a decision, Ponder forced the ball deep to a well-covered Jerome Simpson. After a near-interception, Frazier ordered a run to kill the clock.

"I don't think I'm pressing," Ponder said. "That was just a dumb throw. I think I had Jerome a little earlier than I anticipated and then waited too long to throw the ball. I should have been patient and dumped it down to Percy."

Vikings quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson has spent more than a decade watching young NFL QBs get through "the process" that Ponder is still eyeball deep in during his second season.

"For Christian, he needs to know where to go with the ball and see it live," Johnson said. "Because in the classroom, he's lights out. There's nothing I can ask him in the classroom that he can't answer immediately and correctly. But now, he's a young quarterback in the process. And so it's now, if they bring a pressure and I lose my ability to stretch the width and depth of the field with my underneath options, where can I go with the ball?"

4. Third quarter, first-and-10 from the Vikings 36.

Once again, the Bucs overloaded the left side and send six rushers. The Vikings did a good job in protection and Ponder actually threw a decent deep ball. But in this case, the play didn't work mainly because Simpson ran a sloppy route, which is one of his weaknesses and goes overlooked.

Simpson either got too close to the left sideline by his own choosing or was forced there by the cornerback. Either way, when Ponder threw to Simpson's outside shoulder -- where he's supposed to throw the ball -- that shoulder was already out of bounds.

5. Third quarter, first-and-10 from the Vikings 31.

The Bucs sent a game-high eight rushers on this particular play. By then, they were blitzing as much or more to stop Peterson as to rattle Ponder.

If you freeze the tape, there's a split second that might define what being a young QB in the NFL is all about. Ponder had defenders all around him and was about to get sacked by linebacker Mason Foster. But right before Ponder ducked to accept the sack, he appeared to see Kyle Rudolph waving his arms in the middle of the field.

There was nothing between Rudolph and the end zone but fake grass and one single-high safety off in the distance. It would have been a huge gain, but Ponder didn't pull the trigger.

"Ultimately, it comes back to me with getting the ball out of my hands," Ponder said. "I think teams have had success bringing pressure so I wouldn't be surprised if Seattle does it or if we see it the rest of the year. When they bring pressure, that opens up more holes in the passing game and I just have to do a better job of recognizing it."

It's all part of what Craig Johnson calls "advanced chemistry" for a young quarterback thrown into a league that requires a "flurry of decisions."

"There are always storms," Johnson said. "And there are a lot more storms on the horizon. ... But I can't wait to see how this whole thing plays out. Christian's script has not been written."

  • WEEK 9 3:05 P.M. TODAY AT SEATTLE CENTURYLINK FIELD • LINE: SEAHAWKS BY 4 TV: CH. 9 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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