Pelissero: Amid disarray, Vikings cling to Christian Ponder's promise
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The end result was worthy of neither commendation nor condemnation, which in these parts is an upgrade.
The Minnesota Vikings turned loose rookie quarterback Christian Ponder in his first NFL start and received a performance as enticing as it was uneven, which isn't bad either after six weeks of dawdling along with impotent Donovan McNabb.
That the unbeaten Green Bay Packers held on for a 33-27 decision on Sunday afternoon at the Metrodome was simply an aside for a Vikings team that now stands 1-6 and remains in varying degrees of disarray all over the field.
Two interceptions Ponder threw as the visitors seized control in the third quarter will be forgotten far sooner than the 10-play, 93-yard march that ended with Michael Jenkins' 24-yard touchdown catch and cut the deficit to six with 7 minutes, 49 seconds to go.
"He never got down on himself," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of Ponder, whose 13-of-32 passing line (40.6%) was at least mildly deceiving on a day eight of those completions gained 12 yards or more, seven came on third down and all but one generated a first down or a score.
"He continued to make the plays that needed to be made. He showed a lot of the poise and composure that you need to play with against a very, very good defense. He made a lot of plays, which really gives you some hope for the future."
Ponder's first pass went for 72 yards to Jenkins when Packers cornerback Tramon Williams blew coverage on a double move. His second was a 2-yard scoring strike to diving tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, who beat safety Morgan Burnett along the endline.
A 13-yard completion on an out to Devin Aromashodu opened the next drive. Then, Ponder stumbled through a 5-for-17 stretch in which the incomparable legs of Adrian Peterson (24 carries, 175 yards) carried the Vikings to a 17-10 lead before turnovers and shoddy pass defense paved the way for a 23-0 Green Bay run.
"I made some poor throws, some more poor decisions," Ponder said. "It's definitely on me. They weren't doing anything crazy. They knew exactly what they were going to do and they did exactly what we thought. It's just all on my shoulders."
The Packers played Morgan Burnett as a single-high safety most of the day, dropping Charlie Peprah to help stop the run and letting their cornerbacks aggressively jump everything Ponder tried to do in the short and intermediate passing game.
Veteran Charles Woodson undercut out-breaking routes for both interceptions -- the first a staredown job intended for Shiancoe, the second a deep cross for Jenkins.
"Watching film during the week, I saw (Woodson) do it," Ponder said. "I should have picked up on it and thrown the ball over his head. But again, a learning experience that I've got to learn from."
The Packers turned the picks into only six points on Mason Crosby field goals from 24 and 58 yards, the latter making it 33-17 with 22 seconds left in the third quarter. But that was just the cap on a string of six consecutive scoring drives for Green Bay, which took its first lead on a 79-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Greg Jennings 51 seconds into the third quarter and never gave it up.
Free safety Husain Abdullah lost track of Jennings on that play, his second major mistake in as many weeks. A secondary with two starters (Antoine Winfield and Jamarca Sanford) on the sideline and a third (Chris Cook) in jail provided little resistance for the NFL's best quarterback, who finished 24-of-30 passing for three touchdowns and a 146.5 rating.
"I've faced Rodgers and that offense for the last four years," end Jared Allen said. "They're playing lights-out, but there's nothing that we haven't seen and can't defend and we haven't defended. At times in this game, we did it great. In that fourth quarter, we did pretty well. Couple big plays you've got to take back and it's a different game."
On Saturday night, Allen interrupted a team meeting with an impromptu, impassioned speech about personal accountability. Yet there the Vikings were, making many of the same old mistakes while coughing up another halftime lead -- albeit to a deep and talented Packers side that may well be on its way back to the Super Bowl.
The Vikings hemorrhaged 91 yards on nine penalties, including mindless personal fouls on Brian Robison and Letroy Guion. They started both of their fourth-quarter drives inside their 7-yard line because Marcus Sherels still can't figure out when and where it's acceptable to field a punt. And they crumbled against the run after three straight Ponder misses prompted Frazier to punt with 2:37 to go and all of his timeouts in hand.
Twice, the Packers faced second-and-11. Shifty second-year halfback James Starks exploded for 20 yards on the first try, turned third-and-7 into a 13-yard burst on the second and finished the drive with 55 yards on six carries (9.2 average) after gaining 20 yards on seven attempts (2.9 average) over the first 57 minutes.
"We had them in second-and-(11), right where we wanted them, and they got the first down," Robison said. "It's just one of those things that you look at and you know what we should have done and we didn't do it, and that's kind of the story of our season so far."
On Monday, the Vikings will wait to find out if a judge will allow Cook out on bail. They'll discuss whether to cut problem child Bernard Berrian, reanalyze their defense at every level and get a sense for whether they'll head to Carolina next weekend without two more starters -- receiver Percy Harvin (rib) and right guard Anthony Herrera (knee) -- who couldn't finish on Sunday.
Things might get worse before they get better with this group. They're beat up, worn down mentally and staring down a stretch of nine games with no significance beyond draft slotting and future evaluation, which surely doesn't do much at this point for the likes of Allen.
But if anyone needs a pick-me-up, the Vikings can throw on the tape of Ponder going right back after Woodson -- and besting the six-time All-Pro on a third-down out to Shiancoe for 22, as well as the touchdown to Jenkins that gave the Vikings a shot few believed they'd have in a home game they entered as 10-point underdogs.
"That's what I've learned as a quarterback," Ponder said. "I've done it before and I'll probably do it again. You've got to put those mistakes behind you, especially when you're playing a team like Green Bay. They're going to make some plays. It's my job to limit those plays, but at some point, they're going to get you."