Notebook: Christian Ponder doesn't slow down as Vikings cruise
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MINNEAPOLIS - Christian Ponder wasted little time in establishing himself as a rushing threat in the Minnesota Vikings' 28-0 victory over Houston on Thursday night in their preseason finale.
Starting in place of Donovan McNabb, who along with 25 other players on the roster didn't participate in the game, Ponder ran for first downs on two of the Vikings' first four plays from scrimmage.
"We were teasing him on the sideline," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "He showed some shades of Adrian (Peterson) out there a couple times. But he did a great job. He had strong command of our offense. He was able to make some plays with his legs as well as his arm. He made some good throws for us as well."
Ponder, who is battling Joe Webb for the No. 2 job, completed 10 of 16 passes for 83 yards with a 5-yard touchdown pass to second-round tight end Kyle Rudolph in the second quarter.
Ponder also rushed for 61 yards on eight carries, with a long of 15 yards. That total put him 1 yard behind rookie running back Caleb King, who was making his Vikings debut. King, signed after being passed over in the supplemental draft, rushed for two second half touchdowns and had a game-high 19 carries.
But it was Ponder's footwork that drew the most attention.
"They haven't said anything," Ponder said when asked if the coaching staff had expressed any concern that he might get hurt. "In college I always ran and now they were just telling me to use my feet, use my instincts and make plays and if I can save myself and get out of bounds or get down and slide. I slid a couple of times head first, which probably isn't the best."
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was pleased with Ponder's decision making.
"You can't teach that sixth sense in the pocket," he said. "Just from the sideline, it appeared a couple plays, we had some guys bearing down on him from the backside. You know he didn't see them, but it looked like he felt them and flushed out."
Ponder was replaced by Webb after leading the Vikings to a touchdown on their opening series of the third quarter. The drive ended with rookie Alexander Robinson's 4-yard scoring run.
Ponder's scoring pass to Rudolph completed an eight-play, 86-yard drive and included completions of 17 and 11 yards to Jaymar Johnson. Ponder and Rudolph are good friends and the quarterback said the two talked about cutting the ball in half before admitting neither one knew what happened to it.
"(I) just liked the way he showed command and the way he took control of the huddle and really got us into good plays when the opportunity was presented," Frazier said of Ponder. "Just real poised in every sense of the word. I think we have some hope in Christian.
Webb, meanwhile, completed 5 of 6 passes for 43 yards and scrambled once for 12 yards.
Frazier gave no indication of whether Ponder or Webb had won the No. 2 job.
Take a break
In addition to McNabb the list of offensive players who were given the night off included running backs Lorenzo Booker, Toby Gerhart and Adrian Peterson; wide receivers Bernard Berrian, Michael Jenkins and Percy Harvin; tight ends Jim Kleinsasser and Visanthe Shiancoe; and linemen Steve Hutchinson, Charlie Johnson, Phil Loadholt, John Sullivan and Chris DeGeare.
Defensive players who sat were ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison; tackle Kevin Williams; linebackers Chad Greenway, E.J. Henderson and Erin Henderson; safety Husain Abdullah; and cornerbacks Asher Allen, Chris Cook, Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield.
Guys such as Booker (back), Shiancoe (hamstring) , Williams (plantar fasciitis), Cook (hamstring) and Allen (toe) would have been rested regardless because teams rarely play starters in their final preseason game.
The only two starters who were on the field Thursday were right guard Anthony Herrera, who played in his second game since returning from an ACL injury, and nose tackle Remi Ayodele.
Herrera played one series before being replaced by Ryan Cook; Ayodele stayed in for the first two series before coming out.
Ayodele said he wasn't surprised to be in for about seven snaps. "I wanted to play against Houston just because they are such a good zone team and we haven't gotten to play a team that cuts as much as they did, so it was good work," he said.
Said Frazier: "(I) just wanted to get him some more reps in a football game. It would probably be good for him because he is probably the newest guy to our starting lineup who has never been with us."
Frazier said no decision has been made on whether to place linebacker Jasper Brinkley on injured reserve, a move that would end his season. Brinkley underwent hip surgery this week and is expected to miss at least two months.
Otherwise, Frazier said all the other injured players should be ready to go against the Chargers. "I don't' think there's another guy that we would hold out based on injury," he said.
A decision at strong safety
Frazier wasn't giving any hints, but he did make it clear after Thursday's game that he feels there is a winner in the competition between Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford for the strong safety job.
"I think we do (have a decision), and we'll talk about it (Friday)," Frazier said. "But one of those guys is going to line up against San Deigo."
Johnson got the start over Sanford on Thursday, meaning each player received two starts in the preseason. Johnson played the first two series before Sanford entered and played three series.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing what decision they make," Sanford said. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. But I can't control that. All I can control is just continue to go out and make plays and do what they ask me to do."
Johnson missed a golden opportunity to make an impression in the opening quarter when he dropped what appeared to be a sure interception of a Matt Leinert pass on third-and-9 from the Vikings 38-yard line.
"I just missed it," Johnson said. "It was like the mirror drill -- somebody jumps in front of you and you've got to refocus. It'll come."
Johnson, a second-round pick in 2008, said he would have beaten himself up for the miss early in his career.
"You've got to understand, that's football," he said. "You're going to make mistakes. You're going to miss opportunities sometimes. But you've got to come back and keep fighting."
Johnson likely remembered that he had an interception in the preseason finale last season against Denver and ended up losing the starting job to Abdullah.
Griffen gets his shot
Everson Griffen started the game at right defensive end and then two series in he moved to weakside linebacker.
Griffen had never played the position before the coaching staff started using him there this week and they wanted to see what he could do in a game. Griffen, a fourth-round pick in 2010 out of Southern Cal, played into the second half at his new position.
"It wasn't difficult," Griffen said of moving from end to linebacker. "It's just a mindset. You've just got to go out there and just focus in keying on your assignment. ... That's why you watch film. I did all right I did pretty well. I can always improve and grow."
Griffen said as a linebacker he's reading the guard and when he's at end he's reading the tackle.
"I thought he did some good things," Frazier said. "At times he looked like he was a little bit out of place, but that was to be expected. More often than not he was where he needed to be and he made some plays for us."
As the Vikings do with all their weakside linebackers, Griffen came out when the nickel defense was employed.
Griffen, who made a nice play to break up a pass intended for tight end Anthony Hill in the third quarter, admitted getting used to playing in pass coverage will take some adjustment.
"Once I get back there and get more snaps, get more reps it will be easier," he said.
Griffen does not know if this experiment will continue but said "it was fun."
Eric Frampton might not play much on defense, but the safety showed just why the Vikings keep him on their roster.
With Chris Kluwe punting from the Texans 42-yard line in the first quarter, Frampton raced down the field and jumped at the goal line in time to knock the ball back so Adrian Awasom could down it at the Houston 1-yard line.
An Awasom night
Awasom, a defensive end, had a couple of sacks of Texans quarterback T.J. Yates in the third quarter. On the first, Yates lost the ball and it was recovered by defensive end David Akinniyi.
That led to Robinson's touchdown run.
"He's done some good things," Frazier said of Awasom. "Rushing the pass and tonight he really stepped up and he needed to. It was good for our team that he did."
Any happy returns?
One job that remains open is the punt return position.
Wide receiver Jaymar Johnson, who had averaged 21.3 yards on three returns in the preseason, got the first shot on Thursday. He gained 2, 6 and 3 yards on the first three punt returns.
Marcus Sherels, who was averaging 4.7 yards on six returns in the first three preseason games, then took over. Sherels nearly broke a return in the third quarter but stepped out of bonds. He gained 14 yards on two attempts.
• Rookie cornerback Brandon Burton, a fifth-round pick, intercepted a Yates pass that was intended for Derrick Townsel in the third quarter. That set up a touchdown for the Vikings, meaning they scored 14 points off Houston turnovers.
• Linebacker Kenny Onatolu played in his first preseason game after missing the first three because of a stress fracture in his left foot suffered early in training camp.
• The Minnesota-Duluth men's hockey team, which won the NCAA title last season, was honored in a pregame ceremony and J.T. Brown blew the Vikings Gjallarhorn. Brown is the son of former Vikings running back Ted Brown.
Tom Pelissero contributed.