Zulgad: Early success helps Christian Ponder halt rough stretch
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- This time there were no questions about whether Christian Ponder's confidence had taken another hit. There was no one wondering why tight end Kyle Rudolph wasn't involved in the passing game or why Ponder had thrown a pass or two that resulted in an interception.
So given the opportunity to take a breath and enjoy the Vikings' 34-24 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday at the Metrodome, Ponder used his postgame press conference to deliver accolades to the likes of Jarius Wright, Adrian Peterson, Jarius Wright and, oh yeah, Samantha Steele.
"I want to thank my girlfriend because she obviously has such a big impact on how I play which allowed me to win," Ponder said. "So thank you."
Ponder was having fun.
Steele, a college sideline reporter for ESPN, was linked to Ponder right around the time the quarterback began to struggle and there were some who wanted to blame her for his problems. That qualified as laughable.
What wasn't funny was the way Ponder had been playing before Sunday.
After throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions during the Vikings' 3-1 start, Ponder had tossed eight picks and six touchdowns in the 2-3 stretch that followed. That included a 58-yard passing game in a victory over Arizona and a 63-yard effort in a loss at Seattle a week ago.
Ponder's performance on Sunday was not without flaws - the Vikings had one touchdown in four trips into the red zone - but he established a positive tone early in the game. On the Vikings' fifth play from scrimmage, facing a third-and-10 from his own 45-yard line, Ponder stepped up in the pocket and let fly with a 54-yard pass to Wright that put the ball on the Lions 1.
One play and one Vikings penalty later, Ponder completed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Wright to make it 7-0. Ponder completed 24 of 32 passes for 221 yards with two touchdowns and a 114.2 passer rating. He hadn't had a rating of more than 100 since the Vikings' loss in Week 2 at Indianapolis.
Ponder also broke a streak of five consecutive games with an interception.
Ponder acknowledged that connecting early with Wright, who was playing in place of the injured Percy Harvin, was of great importance.
"It was big, especially to get the ball down the field," Ponder said. "You guys want to see the ball get down the field, so we were able to do that. It was huge, and something that we knew we could take advantage of on that specific play."
Ponder completed passes to 10 receivers on Sunday, including himself. That first quarter play didn't turn out so well. On first-down from the Lions 25, Ponder dropped back to pass and came under heavy pressure from defensive end Cliff Avril. Ponder attempted to pass, but Avril tipped the ball right back at Ponder.
Ponder, unfortunately for him, caught the ball and was thrown for a 15-yard loss.
"I'm going to have to throw myself another 15-yard pass to negate the negative 15 yards," Ponder said.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said he liked what he saw from Ponder as far as his ability to go through his progressions on Sunday. But Frazier admitted he wasn't surprised by Ponder's play given how the second-year quarterback looked in practice last week.
"I felt the way he practiced throughout the week, particularly on Friday, he was really on fire," Frazier said. "I told him, 'You have to save some of this for Sunday now,' because he looked that good in practice on Friday. I knew he was really focused and locked in on having a good game and sure enough he did."
Ponder has received plenty of criticism in recent weeks and there were some calling for him to be benched in favor of Joe Webb. That isn't going to happen, given Ponder was the 12th pick in the 2011 draft and general manager Rick Spielman and Frazier want to give the quarterback every opportunity to keep the job for the long term.
Nonetheless, Ponder knew the media and fans weren't exactly impressed with what they had seen.
"No one puts more pressure on me than myself," he said. "I get disappointed with the way I play and I know I can play better. No matter who writes what, it's not going to be as disappointing to read as what I say to myself. It doesn't bother me because it comes with the territory. The criticism is justified with the play on the field. I know I can play better and today was OK. There's still a ton of room to keep improving."
Rudolph, who caught a team-leading and season-high seven passes for 64 yards with a touchdown after having only two receptions in the past three games, said that, "Christian just came out and let his talent take over."
"He just came out and threw it," Rudolph said. "He knew that the tight ends, wide receivers and the backs out of the backfield were going to make plays for him."
Ponder said his focus Sunday was on his execution. He also revealed that quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson had given him a valuable piece of advice. That was to stop worrying about the consequences of each pass.
"Go out and let it rip," Ponder said was of the message he got from his position coach. "That's what I did."