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Updated: November 9th, 2012 12:49am
Pelissero: No question in scouts' minds where Vikings' weakness lies

Pelissero: No question in scouts' minds where Vikings' weakness lies

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Week after week, advance scouts for the Minnesota Vikings' next opponent are delivering the same message.

Adrian Peterson is the most dangerous running threat in the NFL. Make the Vikings throw and keep playing your defense, though, and the game will be over. You will win.

"I told our coordinator the same thing," one NFL personnel man said. "If we can get, say, a 10-point lead, their offense is going to completely change. And it's not going to work. They're going to be basically forced to throw the ball and that's not them."

Even during the Vikings' 4-1 start, they were somewhat one-dimensional. They ranked 24th in the NFL in passing offense through Week 5 before falling to 30th while losing three of their past four, twice netting fewer than 45 passing yards.

Quarterback Christian Ponder was accurate and efficient enough in the early going to keep the chains moving and help cover the Vikings' flaws -- in particular, a receiving corps that relies almost exclusively on Percy Harvin to turn short passes into long gains.

But as defenses have gathered more detailed probability charts, they've choked up on Harvin, increasingly taken away his outlets to tight end Kyle Rudolph and left Ponder waiting for routes that aren't coming open downfield with inferior receivers.

"I don't think we had any answer for Adrian whatsoever," said another NFL scout whose team played the Vikings this season. "Me personally, I was kind of hoping you guys threw it. That way we had a chance to kind of get after Christian a little bit, get some pressure on him.

"Outside of Percy, I don't consider any of those guys really threats. Obviously, I really like Rudolph, but he's not a stretch-you-down-the-field type of guy. I'm not a huge Jerome Simpson fan. I thought as long as we could get them to throw, we'll be all right."

It's no surprise the Vikings are tweaking the routes and protection calls in coordinator Bill Musgrave's scheme this week, given there's not much they can do about their personnel at this point.

Pressure is mounting from all corners to counter-adjust schematically and rescue not only the season, but a second-year quarterback who increasingly appears to be reverting to his rookie crutches of aiming the ball and bailing out of the pocket.

"We have (made changes) and we're hoping for immediate results," Musgrave said on Thursday. "We really are. This has been a good process for us to go through as coaches and players because we all take accountability, and so we've all really looked at the fundamentals and what exactly it is we're trying to achieve."

By no means is Ponder blameless. He seems more hesitant each week and hasn't really let it fly since the Oct. 14 loss at Washington, where he finished with 352 passing yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns as the Vikings rallied with underneath throws against soft coverage.

But the question remains how coaches can help Ponder succeed, not how long he has left to prove he deserves to be the starter. His traits haven't changed since the Vikings drafted him No. 12 overall out of Florida State in 2011 at a position that requires patience, as the arcs of players such as Eli Manning and Drew Brees show.

"You've got to remember, he's still a young pup, now," the scout said. "Shoot, this is only his second year and it takes time for these guys. I know everybody wants to rush and hurry up to judge. But I think the skill-set he has is a good one to build around."

No one who matters at Winter Park believes athletic backup Joe Webb has a chance to be the long-term solution, nor are they willing to open that door for a short-term fix, given that it would crush Ponder and raise questions about whether he's the guy for the future.

That may not be a popular stance among veterans in the locker room if the passing attack flops again on Sunday against Detroit and the Vikings head into the bye at 5-5, dead last in the NFC North Division just weeks after being in the thick of the playoff hunt.

Right or wrong, though, general manager Rick Spielman knew he didn't have the resources to fill every hole on a rebuilt roster in 2012. A fleeting postseason push isn't worth sidetracking a vision that still has Ponder at the center of it, even as he struggles badly enough the Metrodome crowd figures to boo his first incompletion on Sunday.

"He's a one-read guy," the personnel man said. "He reads half the field, and if he doesn't see the first guy there, he takes off and runs or he gets out of the pocket and try to create. Rarely does he step up in the pocket.

"I really don't feel like he has a good feel even when there's a pocket there. He still wants to bail. And guys are going to do that. It takes some time to learn. But it's almost like he's a rookie. They're playing him like a rookie, too."

The personnel man pointed out the Vikings had thrown more passes under 10 yards than anyone in the NFL by some margin entering the Oct. 25 loss to Tampa Bay, rendering Ponder's high completion percentage -- now down to 64.1%, which is still good for 10th in the NFL -- somewhat moot.

They've taken more shots of late, mostly low-percentage fades to the sideline for Simpson and occasionally Harvin, but still have connected on only one pass play of longer than 33 yards this season. For all the short passes, they have no rhythm or tempo.

Besides Harvin, who often gets the ball behind the line of scrimmage, the Vikings have no one else who can create separation downfield. That includes Simpson, whose vertical speed and explosive leaping ability have been compromised by back problems.

Rudolph relies on his catch radius to make up for lacking speed. Michael Jenkins can't get in and out of breaks anymore. Devin Aromashodu is a No. 4-caliber player. And even when Ponder has an opportunity, he often tries to be too perfect with the football.

"I don't think he's a very accurate passer," the personnel man said. "Anybody should be able to complete passes under 10 yards."

The Vikings saw Ponder complete some difficult throws early in the season, though, particularly on the run. They believe he has the mental capacity and leadership to handle the position, even if that perfectionism sometimes yields an apparent dip in confidence.

They have a clear picture of the player Ponder can be for this team, within this offense, and having the NFL's leading rusher drawing persistent eight- and nine-man boxes should keep creating favorable looks to throw the football.

"If you're running the football into manageable down and distance and not having to put the game on the arm of the young quarterback, I think that'll be the best friend of this offense as (Ponder) continues to develop," an NFL personnel executive said.

"I don't necessarily see him as the guy that's going to raise the play of those around him. I see him more as a facilitator of the players around him."

And Sunday will present the latest test for coaches' ability to facilitate for Ponder, whose 20th NFL start will come under perhaps the most challenging circumstances yet, against a Lions defense that ranks eighth against the pass and with Harvin's status in doubt because of an ankle injury.

Personnel issues aside, there are things that can be done to help him, whether it's making sure he has hot reads against blitzes or changing up route concepts to get players out of breaks sooner and keep defensive backs from squatting.

Just last week, the Vikings faced the Seattle Seahawks, who took cues from the Washington Redskins' zone-read offense in helping rookie quarterback Russell Wilson escape his own early-season struggles.

If Ponder indeed is the Vikings' guy for the long haul -- and there has been no wavering on that -- coaches need to adjust the scheme to him just as he needs to adjust to what he's seeing from the defense, which has been a focus this week like never before.

"None of us are pleased," Musgrave said, "and I get that sense from Christian, that he's not pleased with that we've been putting on the field. That's common and I think we all can relate. We're ready to get that taste out of our mouth in a hurry."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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