Notebook: Christian Ponder's progression continues in upset of 49ers
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Christian Ponder surveyed the scene on the Metrodome field, considered his options and then made his decision.
With the Minnesota Vikings leading San Francisco by four points in the second quarter Sunday, the quarterback pulled the football down and took off straight up the middle from the Niners' 23-yard line.
"Right when I took it down, I saw a big running lane and figured that if my white legs were fast enough, maybe I would get there," Ponder said. "I got there, so it was good."
Ponder not only got into the end zone. He also helped lead the Vikings to a 24-13 upset victory over the heavily favored 49ers. That was the first rushing touchdown this season against the 49ers' normally stout defense.
In addition to running for a score, Ponder threw two touchdown passes to tight end Kyle Rudolph and completed 21 of 35 passes for 198 yards. Three games into the season, Ponder hasn't thrown an interception and Sunday he avoided being sacked in a game for the first time this season.
Ponder also has gotten some breaks.
For the second week in a row, he saw a pass go in and out of the arms of a defender. Sunday, it was Niners safety Donte Whitner who failed to hang onto the ball with about seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. Whitner was at the Vikings' 35-yard line and would have had an opportunity to score.
Ponder's overall evolution as a quarterback was apparent as he often showed poise that simply did not exist in 2011 during his rookie season.
"I don't know, I guess," Ponder said when asked if Sunday's game was his best in 13 career NFL starts. "That's probably what people will say. I think it's the biggest win, for sure against a very good opponent. But again, it makes it easier when guys around me are making plays.
"I think the biggest thing for us is we didn't shoot ourselves in the foot today. I think we had one penalty and that was probably the difference between this week and last week. But as a team, we're very close and we're getting better and for me, I just have to progress week-to-week."
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier did feel Ponder's performance Sunday was his best from a "decision-making standpoint."
"He did a lot of good things on the move, but even in the pocket," Frazier said. "I know there was one occasion where they were barreling down on him and there were times in the past where he might have held onto the ball a little longer and taken a sack, but he ended up throwing the ball out of bounds and I said on the headset, 'Man, he's growing up. He's getting it.'
"In certain situations you have to recognize where the play is dead. He's beginning to do that and that's going to make us a better football team going forward."
Not once but twice
Ponder has thrown four touchdown passes this season and Rudolph has caught three of them, including the two on Sunday.
The first came in the opening quarter on fourth-and-goal from the San Francisco 1-yard line when Ponder scrambled to his left and, under pressure, lobbed the ball to an open Rudolph in the end zone.
The second required far more work from Rudolph.
Facing a third-and-2 from the Niners 2, Ponder threw a pass to Rudolph despite the fact Adrian Peterson was open in the end zone. Rudolph wasn't open and had Whitner draped on him, but the tight end still managed to haul in the ball with his right hand to give the Vikings an 11-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
"It was Cover Zero, they were bringing all pressure ... I didn't have time so I just put it up and it was a little short and he made a heck of a play," Ponder said. "That was an unbelievable play for him."
Rudolph caught five passes for 36 yards Sunday and now is second on the team to Percy Harvin with 13 receptions for 138 yards. Rudolph also drew a penalty on the series that resulted in his second touchdown. With a first-and-10 from the San Francisco 26, Ponder threw a pass for Rudolph that fell incomplete.
However, safety Dashon Goldson hit Rudolph as the play was completed and he drew an unnecessary roughness penalty that put the ball at the 49ers' 14.
"I don't know if it was a late hit or a blow to the head, but it was a defenseless receiver and he took a shot," Rudolph said. "It was a huge play for us to get down there."
Going for it
San Francisco won the opening toss and elected to defer.
That apparently did not sit well with the Vikings, who drove 82 yards on 16 plays en route to Rudolph's first touchdown reception of the afternoon. That came on a fourth-down call from the 49ers' 1-yard line that helped set the tone for the game.
"We talked all week long with our players about being aggressive and really taking it to these guys," Frazier said. "They're a good team and you don't want to back away from a challenge and that was a challenge for us on fourth-and-1.
"We have a lot of confidence in our players in that situation, especially in the fact that it was so early in the game, and fortunately for us Christian made a great play. ... Just a terrific job by our players. But it just goes back to the things that we were preaching throughout the week. It would not have been good for us to back away from that challenge at that moment."
Ponder said there wasn't any hesitation about going for it and not kicking a field goal.
"We stayed out there, assuming that we would go for it and we did," he said. "I think it set the tone for the whole game. ... We talked about starting fast. We started fast."
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith entered Sunday having not thrown an interception in a franchise-record 216 attempts, dating to last Thanksgiving night in Baltimore.
That streak came to an end against an unlikely opponent.
The Vikings did not have an interception in their first two games and had only two in their past 13.
That changed late in the fourth quarter when rookie cornerback Josh Robinson, who plays in nickel situations, picked off a Smith pass intended for Michael Crabtree at the Vikings' 32-yard line.
"He kind of threw it right to me," said Robinson, a third-round pick out of Central Florida. "He threw it behind his receiver, so thank God I was there and able to make that catch. We heard he hasn't had a turnover since last year, 12th game I believe. But we knew we could change that. We know what we have in our secondary. We know what we're capable of."
Return of Randy
Former Viking Randy Moss was the target of six Smith passes on Sunday and caught three of them for 27 yards. His longest reception went for only 12 yards.
Moss, who was out of the NFL last season, is a role player for the 49ers and did not see extensive action Sunday. "Next question," Moss said when asked if his playing time was about what he expected.
The 35-year old was a star with the Vikings from 1998 to 2004 but managed to get himself jettisoned from the roster after a four-game return in 2010. This was his first-ever regular-season game in the Metrodome as a visitor and afterward he praised the Vikings fans.
"I want to thank the fans for the love," he said. "I really appreciate the love that they gave. We just didn't pull it through today."
Moss said he was not surprised by how the Vikings played in earning the upset.
"No, I know the Vikings have always played other teams tough, especially when they are the underdog," Moss said. "That is one thing that is Minnesota football."
In three games, the wide receiver has eight receptions for 88 yards with a touchdown.
Block that kick
The Vikings blocked their second field-goal attempt of the season, as Letroy Guion got a hand on a 43-yard attempt by David Akers in the second quarter. Rookie left tackle Matt Kalil blocked a field-goal attempt in the opener against Jacksonville two weeks ago.
"That was huge," Frazier said. "It was a big turnaround for us. It could have been a six-point swing but our defense along with Matt Kalil in there helping us field-goal block, that was a huge swing for us. That's demoralizing to drive the ball the way they did and get position and come away with no points then we get the ball back and get points. That's hard. That was a big sequence for our football team."
The score would have been 14-6 if Akers had made the kick. Instead, the Vikings got the ball back at their own 33 and drove for a 52-yard field goal from rookie Blair Walsh to take a 17-3 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Wide receiver Jerome Simpson's three-game suspension for violating the NFL 's substance abuse policy will come to an end Monday, meaning he can rejoin the Vikings on a full-time basis and go through all team activities.
Simpson, who was signed as a free agent during the offseason after four seasons in Cincinnati, should provide the Vikings with a vertical threat upon his return for next Sunday's game in Detroit.
Simpson's presence will give the Vikings 54 players on their roster on Monday. The team could seek an exemption from the league to keep one extra player on its roster until Thursday, if that is what the Vikings want to do.
The Vikings also could make a roster move Wednesday in order to get down to the 53-man limit.
"Obviously, (Simpson is) a great player and we're going to find ways to use him and get the ball to him," Ponder said. "We're excited he'll be back for this game (next Sunday)."
Harvin seems especially excited that Simpson will join him on the field.
"Let's party," he said. "It's another weapon. We'll welcome him back. It's something for us to keep going, and for us to keep going we need all our weapons."
• Walsh set a Vikings record with his third consecutive game with a 50-plus yard field goal.
• Rudolph's two touchdown catches tied a team record for most in a game by a tight end. Former Viking Visanthe Shiancoe was the most recent to do it, catching two touchdowns in 2009 against Baltimore and 2008 against Atlanta.
• Harvin has 559 combined net yards, establishing a team mark after three games of a season. He also set a franchise mark for most receptions after three games with 27.
• Running back Adrian Peterson set a team record for most rushing attempts in his first six seasons with 1,464.
• The Vikings won their fifth game in a row at home against the 49ers and are 8-3-1 all-time against the 49ers in the month of September.
• Chad Greenway had two sacks Sunday to move him into seventh place for most career sacks by a Vikings linebacker. The last time a Vikings linebacker had two sacks in a game was Ed McDanield against San Francisco on Oct. 24, 1999.