Christian Ponder gets Vikings offense going, but 'a lot of work to do'
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SAN FRANCISCO -- The Minnesota Vikings' starting offense got the ball moving in Friday's exhibition opener. If only the receivers could have caught it a little better, too, they might have left with a lead.
Christian Ponder was 4-of-9 passing for 80 yards, with three of the incompletions coming on drops and the other two on throwaways, as the Vikings settled for a pair of field goals that ended up being their only points in a 17-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
"We were close, but obviously, we've still got a lot of work to do before the season starts," Ponder said. "Obviously, ultimately, we would have liked to win this game and we missed on some opportunities. But it's back to the drawing board on Sunday when we get down to Mankato."
The starters' two drives netted 122 yards in 17 plays. The drops by Jerome Simpson, Stephen Burton and Michael Jenkins were a big reason the Vikings trailed 7-6 before Ponder went to the bench for good early in the second quarter.
"That's something that we've talked about in the offseason, being a good red-zone offense," coach Leslie Frazier said. "That's one of those things that we'll take a look at on tape and try to improve. If we can turn those threes into sevens, it's going to be a major plus for our offense and for our team. We need to get sevens in those situations."
A 52-yard completion to Burton -- who started at flanker in place of healthy scratch Percy Harvin -- on a post route against veteran 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers sparked the first drive.
Burton was the third read on the play, but the protection held long enough for Ponder to find him after seeing Simpson and tight end Kyle Rudolph covered.
"They played what we call Cover-8, which is, they played Cover-2 to the weak side and quarters to the strong side," said Ponder, who finished with a 76.2 rating and didn't take a sack.
"I looked at Jerome at 'X' first on a little hook route and it wasn't open and then got to the front side, safety came down on Kyle and Stevy B. was wide open on a post. He made a great catch. I wish I would have put it out and let him run under it. It could have been a touchdown."
Instead, the Vikings had first-and-10 at the San Francisco 24-yard line and Simpson promptly dropped a pass on a drag route. Toby Gerhart ran for 3 yards on second down and had his screen covered on third, forcing Ponder to throw the ball at his feet and rookie Blair Walsh to kick a 39-yard field goal.
The offense got another series and marched down the field again. Ponder completed two out-breaking passes to Rudolph for first downs -- 8 yards on third-and-4, then 14 yards on second-and-5 moments later -- and Gerhart gained 16 yards on a power toss to convert on third-and-6 after a drop by Burton.
"I felt like, offensively, we did some things well," Rudolph said. "Obviously, we can go back and look at the tape and find some things we need to do better. But we felt like we came out and moved the ball pretty well the first couple of drives and obviously, we got to put it in the end zone."
Gerhart's run put the Vikings at the 49ers' 12-yard line, and Lex Hilliard gained 4 yards on first down. But Ponder threw away a ball in rookie Jarius Wright's direction on second down, and a slant to Jenkins glanced off his hands on third-and-6.
It appeared Simpson might have been open on a cross on the second-down play, but Ponder said he didn't see it.
"The time clock went off in my head and went through three guys in my read and then got the ball out," Ponder said. "It's important for us not to take sacks in the red zone, and I thought I made the smart decision."
The third-down throw was to Jenkins' back shoulder because cornerback Tarell Brown had inside coverage. Ponder said he might have put the ball too far behind Jenkins, who nonetheless got both hands on it and couldn't make the play.
"He was my third read and got out to him," Ponder said. "The DB was kind of cutting inside. I think they were in quarters. So, I tried to put it back shoulder and unfortunately, we weren't able to connect. ... We want touchdowns rather than field goals, but we're happy to get points there."
Walsh booted a 26-yard field goal, and that was it for the Vikings' offense.
Backup quarterback Joe Webb's five drives netted only four first downs and 51 yards total, all ending in punts. McLeod Bethel-Thompson's first drive went 41 yards before another punt, and cornerback Perrish Cox intercepted on the first play of the final series.
The Vikings finished with only 208 net yards of offense, compared to 412 for the 49ers. But for a first run of a remodeled offense playing without Harvin and halfback Adrian Peterson, who still is recuperating from knee reconstruction, Ponder wasn't going to argue with his group's results against a defense that ranked No. 4 in the NFL last season.
"Yeah, for sure," Ponder said. "First preseason game against a great defense. I thought everyone stepped up their game, and we've been working hard for two weeks down in Mankato. So, it's a good starting point for us."