Pelissero: Harnessing mobility is part of Christian Ponder's challenge
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Playing quarterback in the NFL is all about establishing rhythm, timing and tempo. That's why part of Christian Ponder's challenge is not leaning too heavily on his greatest gift.
Scouts love the Minnesota Vikings rookie's athleticism and ability to extend plays with his legs. But it's a daily process for coaches to caution Ponder about getting off his spot too soon, bouncing around the pocket and bolting at the first sign of an opening.
"Every defensive coordinator I've ever talked to -- that's not what they want to see," Vikings quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson said recently. "They want that ball to come out on time so they can rally. But every now and then, you've got to really fight against that and guard against that for a quarterback to leave the pocket early when you don't have to."
The more a young quarterback plays, the less he's going to do it. The more trust he builds in where his receivers will be, the more confident he can be to stand in against the rush.
Until he stands in and makes NFL throws consistently, defenses will continue to do what they have against Ponder -- blitz, blitz and blitz some more to speed up his clock in the pocket.
"When you have a guy that's athletic like that," said an NFL personnel director who has broken down several of Ponder's starts, "if you can force him and make him make decisions quicker and not be able to drop back, see what's there, if it's not there, then take off, but you've got it where it's firing at him and he's got things swimming around him -- you could try to confuse him a little bit."
That's why Ponder's performance in last weekend's loss to Denver was encouraging, in spite of three turnovers that contributed to the Vikings' fourth straight defeat.
The Broncos rushed five or more 22 times in Ponder's 49 dropbacks (44.9%). With mostly serviceable protection, he completed 9 of 18 passes against the blitz for 212 yards and three touchdowns, seven of the completions going for 14 yards or more.
"In the second half, you barely saw them bring a lot of pressure," Ponder said. "They were dropping back and playing Cover-2 instead."
He did let safety Brian Dawkins strip him on a blitz that got home in 2.8 seconds. A three-man rush led to the late shot on Ponder's hip that has his status in doubt for Sunday's game at Detroit.
The two interceptions Ponder threw into that Cover-2 against the Broncos were the type of mistakes coaches can live with from a rookie, provided he learns from them.
"We want," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said, "to eliminate the ones where they go to the wrong place, of course, from our diet."
You can't throw a curl into Cover-2 in the NFL, nor can you throw late to the corner on a smash route instead of the hitch. Those are elementary mental mistakes, not physical ones, which would be more difficult to fix.
"There's no question (Ponder) has shown us that I think he can make every throw," Johnson said. "You always like to have a quarterback that you don't have to worry about holding down your offense, because he's able to expand the field, horizontally and vertically. I feel good about that. Like with all young players, it's a matter of timing."
That's why coaches will keep working to harness Ponder's mobility and build that trust with his receivers, even as injuries continue to deplete the group.
If there's even a sliver of doubt in a young quarterback's mind about where the receiver will be, he'll try to be too fine with the football. Those misses are more mental than physical, too, even though coaches will spend hours in the film room analyzing the smallest details in footwork and shoulder, hip and toe alignment.
"He's got to work on not aiming the ball," the personnel director said of Ponder, who has completed 121 of 216 passes (56%) for 1,522 yards and nine touchdowns with eight interceptions.
"That'll come. For him, he's got some of the tools athletically and arm strength-wise and touch-wise that I think he could end up being your quarterback for the next 10 years."
Perhaps the best example of this dichotomy with Ponder came in the fourth quarter of the Vikings' loss at Atlanta on Nov. 27 -- a game in which he completed 68% of his passes but seemed to see ghosts a few times, drifting off his spot when pressure didn't come.
On first-and-10 from the Falcons 36-yard line with 14:05 to go, Ponder threw a horrible one-hopper for Michael Jenkins on a simple hitch route. Three plays later, in a do-or-die spot on fourth-and-13, Ponder spotted Percy Harvin against favorable coverage and dropped a bullet over linebacker Curtis Lofton's shoulder for a 39-yard touchdown.
"That time, he just trusted it and let it go," Johnson said. "A half-yard to a yard off means an interception. That is timing. That's rhythm. That's a young guy knowing where my receivers are at, where the holes are in a defense and being able to make a play.
"That's why it's the greatest position going, because you can't be a robot, nor can you be totally uncoachable. You have to be able to, when all the coaches draw all these intricate plays, sometimes have the ability to adlib. That's what the great ones can do -- adlib a little bit outside of that and still stay within the framework of the play to make a play. And he's growing."