Notebook: Vikings' Christian Ponder says headfirst dives are by design
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings were facing a third-and-2 from the Buffalo Bills 4-yard line in the first quarter during Friday night's preseason game at the Metrodome when quarterback Christian Ponder decided his best option was to take off with the ball.
Ponder scrambled to his right and then, as he neared the first down, he dived headfirst toward the ground for a 3-yard gain. One play later, Ponder found fullback Jerome Felton on a 1-yard touchdown pass.
While the end result was to the Vikings' liking, Ponder's decision on how he ended his scramble seemed curious.
Why would a guy who battled injury issues during his rookie season put himself at risk by going to the ground headfirst?
After the Vikings' 36-14 victory over the Bills, Ponder explained that he was instructed by offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to end his run like that.
"Coach Musgrave made this cut-up about sliding head first versus sliding feet first and we've never seen someone get hurt sliding head first," Ponder said. "So it's on purpose. When you slide feet first, you're exposing your body to get hit and like we saw at Washington (with) me last year, I got pretty jacked up that game. People are tweeting at me like, 'Dude, slide feet first, what are you doing?' But it's a planned deal."
First-round pick Harrison Smith got his first start at safety on Friday and it sounds as if he will hold the job into the regular season.
"I've got to look at the tape, but I don't see anything from tonight that would tell me anything different," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said when asked if he viewed Smith as a starter going forward. "I would think that he's going to continue to get better and better. We're counting on that. That's one of the reasons we drafted him when we did. We're counting on him to be a starter. I haven't seen anything, without looking at the tape, that would upset that."
Smith certainly did not hurt himself by batting down a pass from Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick while blitzing on a third-down play in the first quarter.
"I was kind of the guy that came free on the blitz, and then I was in his throwing window so it just worked out," Smith said.
Smith, who was taken with the 29th pick in the draft after the Vikings made a trade with Baltimore, was asked about his expectations of being a starter.
"Really, that has not been my focus," he said. "I just have come in and tried to play as hard as I can play every day, learn the defense. Really, that's where my head is at."
Cornerback Josh Robinson, a third-round pick in April, made his Vikings debut after missing the preseason opener because of a hamstring injury. Robinson played well and showed good instincts.
"It was great to have Josh out there after fighting a hamstring injury, and I thought he did a real good job," Frazier said.
"I'm looking forward to watching the tape. From what I observed, he held his own, showed his speed on the one deep ball where they tried to throw it over the top of him. He was aggressive when he had a chance to come up. We have high hopes for him. We hope he is going to be a major factor in our secondary this season."
Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who missed all of last season because of a hip injury, played much of the first half as the Vikings attempt to get him back into swing of things.
"He actually rotated back and forth with Erin (Henderson) and there was a lot of nickel (situations)," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "We had guys on a pitch count, so it wasn't necessarily getting one guy or another more reps. When those reps were done, they were done with the preseason game."
At one point in the first half, the Vikings used Marvin Mitchell at weak-side linebacker in place of Henderson. Henderson did re-enter the game when the Vikings went to their nickel defense and used only two linebackers. Henderson is the middle linebacker in those situations.
Mitchell was signed by the Vikings in April. He originally was a seventh-round choice of the New Orleans Saints in 2007.
"With Marvin and Erin, they're still guys that don't have a lot of starts under their belt, so we want to get a lot of tape on them as well so they can play confident and understand what we're trying to get across from a defensive standpoint," Frazier said.
Jerome Simpson got plenty of attention last December when the then-Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver caught a pass from Andy Dalton and ran 19 yards up the sideline before he somersaulted over an Arizona Cardinals defender into the end zone.
Simpson didn't perform any somersaults Friday but he did show his athletic ability on a 33-yard reception on the Vikings' opening possession of the game.
Simpson, signed as a free agent by the Vikings this spring, caught a pass from Ponder and then managed to leap over Bills safety Jairus Byrd as he gained extra yardage and got to the Bills 23-yard line.
"Just the Jerome Simpson coming out of me," Simpson said when asked about the catch. "Just trying to make a play for my team. Me and Christian, we were just on the same page there. The corner was playing kind of tough, man coverage up tight, and I just one stepped him and Christian threw a strike and I just did the easy part of just trying to run and get yardage."
Asked about his athletic moves, Simpson said: "It's something that just happens just like that. It's one of the things that I was just blessed to be able to do and that's just jump. That's part of my game and it just helps me to be Jerome Simpson."
Simpson finished tied for the team lead Friday with three receptions for 43 yards. That included a catch on the same type of pass that Simpson had dropped the week before in San Francisco.
"I thought about that drop the whole week, and I stayed after practice with our assistant receivers coach (Ryan Ficken) and just worked on that pass," he said. "I have caught that pass a hundred times, but sometimes when you get too comfortable you kind of get lackadaisical. I just had to get back to my roots and just going back after practice and catching balls and staying focused."
Simpson has been suspended by the NFL for the first three games of the regular season and said he plans on spending that time working with trainers he knows in Cincinnati and California.
Rookie kicker Blair Walsh missed his first field-goal attempt of the preseason in the second quarter, pushing a 49-yard try wide to the right. The snap by Cullen Loeffler to holder Chris Kluwe was a bit low, creating some potential issues for Walsh.
But Walsh, a sixth-round pick by the Vikings last April, made his other five attempts, hitting from 22, 47, 45, 40 and 30 yards. He is now seven of eight on field-goal attempts in the preseason.
Walsh, who has a much stronger leg than the kicker he replaced, Ryan Longwell, also had four touchbacks Friday.
"We want to continue to give him opportunities to make kicks," Frazier said. "But we're confident he's the right guy for us. ... We have complete confidence that he can get the job done and he's showing that. Even after the miss, to come back and kick as strong as he did, that's a good sign."
Musgrave got creative on the Vikings' second possession of the game, calling for a flea flicker.
Ponder handed off to Toby Gerhart, who pitched the ball back to his quarterback.
However, Ponder came under pressure and threw the ball out of bounds toward Simpson to avoid a sack.
On the run
Joe Webb replaced Ponder in the second quarter and made an immediate impression.
On third down, Webb dropped back to pass, saw no one open and with the Bills beginning to apply pressure he took off for what turned into a 41-yard run that ended at the Bills 37.
Webb added a 23-yard scramble late in the first half, making some nice moves to get himself extra yardage.
Webb struggled against the 49ers, finishing 4 of 11 for 20 yards and he ran only twice for 9 yards. In 11 games last season, Webb averaged 7 yards on 22 carries and had a long run of 65 yards that went for a touchdown.
Webb finished seven of 15 for 73 yards Friday and gained a team-leading 64 yards on two carries before being replaced by Sage Rosenfels with 13:27 left in the fourth quarter. It was Rosenfels' first action of the preseason. Rosenfels completed 4 of 8 passes for 63 yards.
Quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who saw action against the 49ers, did not play Friday.
Wide receiver Stephen Burton, a seventh-round pick in 2011, made a costly error in the second quarter.
After catching a pass from Webb over the middle that went for 26 yards, Burton was stripped of the ball by cornerback Leodis McKelvin and Delano Howell recovered.
Webb had come close to completing a long pass along the right sideline to wide receiver Devin Aromashodu on the previous play but the veteran was out of bounds when he caught the ball.
• Aromashodu was the target of a team-high six passes on Friday but did not have a single catch and still does not have a preseason reception despite having nine passes thrown in his direction.
• Cornerback Marcus Sherels was deep to return the opening kickoff of the game but it went for a touchback.
• Scouts from Miami, the New York Jets, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston and Baltimore were scheduled to attend Friday's game, as well as two Canadian Football League scouts.
Tom Pelissero contributed.