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Updated: October 20th, 2011 5:27pm
Notebook: Vikings won't put 'brakes' on offense for Christian Ponder

Notebook: Vikings won't put 'brakes' on offense for Christian Ponder

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The transition from veteran Donovan McNabb to rookie Christian Ponder as the Minnesota Vikings starting quarterback does not mean the team plans to scale back its offensive game plan all that much.

"We feel like we can go forward with a full complement," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said Thursday. "We want to expand each and every week and be tough to defend, but we don't feel like we need to put the brakes on in any regard."

Ponder, the 12th pick in last April's draft, will make his first career start on Sunday for the Vikings (1-5) against the Green Bay Packers (6-0) at the Metrodome. McNabb is in his 13th NFL season.

However, this was McNabb's first year in Musgrave's offense meaning there was a learning curve there as well.

Musgrave acknowledged that Ponder wasn't getting much work in practice because the emphasis was on having McNabb get as many reps as possible because of the fact the offseason was lost to the NFL lockout.

Coach Leslie Frazier stressed that it's going to be important to allow Ponder to work with elements of the offense he's most familiar with, while not removing too much of the playbook.

"This being his first start you sure do want to do some things that he's comfortable with, going back (to) training camp, that he took a lot of reps on," Frazier said. "You want to get as much of that in the game plan as you can, things he's had a chance to work at quite a bit. That's what we tried to do.

"Along with giving Christian a chance to be successful, also giving our team a chance to be successful on offense. So we've tried to cater to where he is, but at the same time not dummy it down to the point where we can't function and do what we need to do to score points on Sunday because this is a very good defense. You can't just be vanilla against Green Bay. You've got to be able to work your offense and so we're going to try to be smart."

Musgrave admitted there is a temptation to "burn the midnight oil" in getting Ponder ready but the fear is that doing that would burn him out before Sunday.

One reason Musgrave was hired by the Vikings after last season was because of the success he had in helping develop Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Musgrave was the Falcons quarterback coach when Ryan arrived as the third-overall pick in the 2008 draft.

Ryan helped to lead Atlanta to the playoffs that season and was named the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Ponder got some regular-season experience last Sunday in the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bears' 39-10 victory over the Vikings at Soldier Field. He completed 9 of 17 passes for 99 yards.

The focus on Ponder will be far greater Sunday as he makes his first start. Musgrave knows this and wants to make Ponder's transition as easy as possible.

"The biggest challenge for a young guy, whether it is a quarterback or a position player, is to be able to focus on what is really important," Musgrave said. "There are a lot of different factors in mind, and it's just human nature to think about it all.

"It comes down to playing one play at a time. We say focus in on the little pictures, make sure when you do throw the ball that it's accurate. That you throw it on time, your footwork, you make the right check or audible at the line of scrimmage rather than thinking about the ramifications or implications of whether the play would work or not.

"There are so many things running through a young guys mind along with those butterflies that if they can just focus on the fundamentals and techniques the end result would be acceptable."

Willing to help

Vikings quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson praised McNabb for the way the veteran has conducted himself this week.

"I can't think of anybody who's ever handled a situation like this better than he has," Johnson said. "What I expect from him, and what he's done and he continued to do (Thursday), is he gets into Christian's ear and gives him all the little details."

Johnson, who was an assistant coach with the Tennessee Titans before joining the Vikings staff last offseason, said he saw the same thing with Kerry Collins and Vince Young. 

"That means 10 times more than anything coming from any coach. Believe me," Johnson said. "For a veteran player who's been through the wars, to come up and take a younger player aside and say, 'Look for this.' It's little details coming from a veteran that makes a difference.

"And (McNabb) has been tremendous with Christian all along. And Joe (Webb). And that is a great  asset to have and for Christian to lean on. He'll be leaning on him during the games for a different set of eyes, because he can talk about the little details of the game."

Tough run

The Vikings once took great pride in having one of the NFL's best run defenses.

But you wouldn't have known that in the first half last Sunday as the Bears rushed for 71 yards. Things got better in the second half as Chicago was held to 48 yards on the ground but the damage had been done.

"They came out in the first half and took us to the woodshed and none of us were happy," said Vikings defensive coordinator Fred Pagac, who rarely says anything critical about the team. "Coaches, players. It's a situation where they executed and we didn't and they got some yardage on us running the ball. That's not normal for us and that's something we have to improve on."

Considering Pagac seemed willing to be open on this subject, he was asked why this had happened. That was a question he wouldn't answer.

"I'm just going to leave it as we got our butts kicked and came out the second half and played much better as far as that's concerned," he said.

Still in the mix?

The Vikings have used Webb at quarterback five times this season in package that has been dubbed "The Blazer," a nod to Webb's time playing for the Alabama-Birmingham Blazers.

Webb also has had three snaps playing wide receiver. So far, however, his inclusion has failed to make a difference. He has minus 1-yard rushing on two carries and no receptions.

Musgrave said the fact Ponder is taking over doesn't mean Webb will be eliminated as an option on offense, but acknowledged the team wants more bang for its buck when Webb gets on the field.

"We are not satisfied with very much at this stage," Musgrave said. "Especially after you get it handed to you like we did on Sunday night.

"We want to get back on track where we felt like we were making progress each and every week, but in greater increments. When Joe is on the field we want to get more juice out of it, and we will keep putting him in position where he can do that."

Unhappy return

Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer took responsibility for Devin Hester's 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter at Soldier Field. Hester, one of the best return men in NFL history, has run back three punts and a kickoff against the Vikings in his career.

"I'm kicking myself for that one," Priefer said. "It obviously starts with me and I was very, I don't know if you'd say ambitious, but I believe in our guys and I really think we have a good kickoff cover team. We challenged them and we lost that challenge, unfortunately. I'll learn from that and move on."

So what happened?

Priefer said that the plan didn't give linebacker Larry Dean enough room to make the play.

"I'd like to squeeze that a little bit more," Priefer said. "I think it was Christian (Ballard) on that side that actually blows right through the double-team. ... We didn't squeeze it enough with the (two guys on the outside), we call it 'setting the edge.' We need to do a better job with that. I think that if we gave Larry a little bit more room, he would have made that play."

Work in progress

Marcus Sherels made what appeared to be a poor choice in the first quarter last Sunday when he decided to make a fair catch on an Adam Podlesh punt at his own 5-yard line instead of letting the ball go into the end zone.

On the second play of the ensuing offensive series for the Vikings, McNabb was sacked in the end zone for a safety. 

"Marcus is a work in progress," Priefer said. "What he does is, he has a rule, and he drifted a little bit past that rule, and to be honest with you, they may have downed it inside the 5 anyway. I'm not saying that would have happened, it was cold, it was windy and the ball may have bounced in the end zone, too. But he needs to let that ball bounce. That's twice this year. We've worked on it, we've addressed it, we worked hard on it (Wednesday)."

Priefer said he tells his punt return man to have his toes at the 8-yard line, so the player knows where he is and doesn't get turned around easily and lose track of his position on the field.

A few factors 

Punter Chris Kluwe had a 37.2 gross average and a 31.8 net average on five punts against the Bears, in part because one of his boots only went 18 yards.

This was not a shock considering the swirling winds at Soldier Field, but Priefer felt it was more than that.

"I think the wind caught it. I think the pressure of kicking to Hester caught it," he said. "Sometimes, when you're an indoor team, and obviously, as an indoor team, this is only my seventh game coming up, you get used to not punting in winds. When you get out there and it's swirling, you kind of get caught up.

"Even a veteran guy can get caught up in the, 'Oh man, this is going to be a rough night.' I think we might have gotten caught up in that a little bit. We need to take that experience and go forward. I think we have four more games outdoors, including Green Bay on Monday night, where we have to say, 'Who cares?' We need to do what we do best. We need to use the wind to our advantage, like they did."

Quick hits

• The Vikings will announce their offensive starters on Sunday, not because Ponder is starting but because they introduced the defensive starters before their last home game on Oct. 9 against Arizona.

• The Vikings are expected to wear their throwback uniforms for the second time this season on Sunday. 

• Right cornerback Cedric Griffin struggled against Chicago, causing Pagac to say: "Cedric would tell you he wants to improve, get more consistent and whether that's a physical situation because of the knee or not, I don't know that." Griffin underwent surgery after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in both knees over the past two years.

Tom Pelissero contributed.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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