The Vikings had thrown downfield at a minimum all season. So to try to change their offensive patterns and try to get back on a winning track, they worked every day in practice this past week on a play that called for a long pass to rookie receiver Jarius Wright.
The first time the play was ran in practice, Wright dropped the ball. But Sunday, the fourth-round draft choice got Christian Ponder off on the right foot when he caught a 54-yard reception to the 1-yard line and then two plays later caught a touchdown pass in his NFL debut.
"That was huge, that's something we talked about," Ponder said. "On third down, [the Lions] do a lot of Cover 2 and Tampa 2 and [we've] got to get Jarius isolated on the [middle] linebacker down the middle of the field. I bought time, let it go, it wasn't a great ball, but he caught it and then we were able to score a touchdown. That's huge on our first drive to start fast like that.
"That's a play we specifically worked on all week. [Wright] was in all week, took advantage of his time, had a great week of practice and we saw it pay off."
So with just 6 1/2 minutes elapsed Sunday, Ponder had thrown for 62 yards, 1 yard fewer than the 63 he passed for the entire Seattle loss last week, when he was 11-for-22 with an interception and a 37.3 rating.
That big completion set the stage for Ponder's 24-for-32 day, with 221 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a QB rating of 114.2, just behind his season-best 114.6 rating in the loss at Indianapolis.
And Ponder did it without league-leading receiver Percy Harvin, who had caught 34 percent of his completed passes coming in.
Yes, a lot of the media had given up on Ponder. But what he did Sunday showed that the 2011 first-round pick is a lot better than he had been described by a lot of the local press, radio and television analysts this past week.
Going into Week 7, Ponder had been great in leading the Vikings to a 4-2 record. He had a 92.4 QB rating through six games with eight touchdowns and four interceptions and was averaging 239 yards passing per game. His next three games saw him complete just 38 of 74 passes for 372 yards -- 251 of those in the loss to Tampa Bay -- with two touchdowns and four interceptions.
But Sunday, Ponder looked as good as he has all season, and he limited his mistakes. It was his first turnover-free game since Week 4 at Detroit.
Sure, Ponder went into this game with memories of his poor performance at Seattle. But he no doubt thought more about what he ranks as one of worst games of his pro career, last season in Detroit when he completed only 11 of 21 passes with two touchdowns, three interceptions and a 60.7 rating.
Asked how he accounted for his improvement this week, Ponder said: "I just kind of refocused. I knew that I had to play better. I just put pressure on myself to work on some things. It helps when everyone around you steps up and plays extremely well.
"For Adrian [Peterson] to be making the plays that he did in the running game, Kyle Rudolph -- nine or 10 different guys caught the ball and made plays. We played like how we expect ourselves to play. We played how we're supposed to. You can see what can happen when we play up to our ability.
"I just knew I had to play better and got into that mindset where if I don't step up, then there's a good chance that I'm not playing. So I just put that pressure on myself to put in some more time to get better, and it worked out."
Ponder saved some of his highest praise for Peterson, who rushed for 171 yards and a game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"Unbelievable, unbelievable, that was his third game in a row with a 60-yard touchdown or more and his fourth game in a row with over 100 yards," Ponder said. "Huge, especially to show up in that fourth quarter when we needed him and take over the game."
Rudolph gets going
Ponder said getting Rudolph involved in the passing game was a priority.
"We knew we wanted to get him involved," Ponder said. "There were a ton of mismatches on him, him and linebackers. We saw some things on film from the last time we played them that he could get open. He made plays, made some great catches, got in the end zone on the option route and played well."
Rudolph was averaging 4.2 receptions for 37.5 yards with five total touchdowns over his first six games but was held to two receptions for 17 yards over the next three.
Sunday, he had a return to form, making seven receptions for 64 yards and also grabbing his sixth touchdown of the year.
"We had gone 1-2 and we knew this week was important. Everyone had to step up, not just the tight ends, because we had to win this game going into the bye week, especially because it's in the division," Rudolph said. "Coach [Leslie] Frazier said we need to get to 6-4 before the bye week, and we did that.
"[This win was] really important. The Lions are a great team, you have to give them a lot of credit. They're really good in the second half, especially the fourth quarter, I think they have the most points by any team in the NFL in the fourth quarter. So we knew we couldn't just rest on our laurels, that we had to go out there and keep scoring points."
About his 20-yard touchdown reception to open the fourth quarter, Rudolph said: "I have to give credit to Michael Jenkins, he made a huge block and there was no one there. Any time you have the opportunity to walk in, it's a good feeling."
Chris Kluwe was another Vikings player who had been having a rougher stretch of late, getting to the point that the Vikings brought in another punter for a tryout. The team gave a look at Brian Stahovich following the Tampa Bay loss, when Kluwe averaged only 37.8 yards per punt and shanked one punt for only 20 yards.
But over the past two weeks, Kluwe has rebounded tremendously. Sunday, he averaged 48.6 yards on his five punts against Detroit, including two inside the 20, which helped keep the Lions on the wrong side of the field-position battle all game.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • firstname.lastname@example.org