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Updated: September 18th, 2012 4:57pm
Zulgad: Vikings' vertical passing game virtually nonexistent so far

Zulgad: Vikings' vertical passing game virtually nonexistent so far

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Christian Ponder did his best Monday to downplay the importance of the vertical passing game when asked about the Minnesota Vikings' lack of big-play strikes through the first two games of the season.

"We're finding ways to make big plays still," the quarterback said. "We don't have to throw the ball downfield. Obviously, it's great to make big plays and get the ball downfield, but with the offense we have right now, we're taking what the defense gives us."

What Ponder doesn't say is that the Vikings are clearly limited, or at least feel they are, in what they can do as far as opening up things.

With Jerome Simpson suspended for the first three games of the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, the expectation was the Vikings would lack any type of vertical threat in games against Jacksonville, Indianapolis and San Francisco.

With a victory over the Jaguars and loss to the Colts in the books, that has proven to be the case. Ponder's longest pass to a wide receiver in the two games was a 26-yard completion to Devin Aromashodu and that came in a desperation situation against the Jaguars with the Vikings trailing by three and time running out in the fourth quarter.

Percy Harvin has been, well, Percy Harvin. In other words, he has been the Vikings' best offensive player.

Harvin has 18 catches for 188 yards, tying him with New Orleans running back Darren Sproles for second in the NFL in receptions. But Harvin is a slot receiver, a guy who isn't meant to be a consistent threat to catch the deep ball.

He has a pair of 20-yard receptions in the first two games. Ponder did attempt a 44-yard pass to Harvin against the Colts but the receiver was called for offensive pass interference.

Aromashodu had three catches against the Jaguars but had only one for 19 yards in Indianapolis. Michael Jenkins is at eight receptions, however, his longest has been for 16 yards. Stephen Burton caught a 7-yard touchdown on Sunday but that came on a deflection and is his only reception through two games.

The Vikings longest pass play his season was a 29-yard Ponder completion to tight end Kyle Rudolph in Week 1

Ponder explained that the Colts were playing a lot of two-deep coverage and he has been adamant that he would rather be safe than sorry. "I'm not going to force things down the field that aren't there," he said. "We're just going to play and make the plays we're supposed to."

The real question is whether Aromashodu, Jenkins and Burton have the ability to create the separation necessary to beat defenders deep and open up things for the Vikings. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave had his receivers run some deeper routes on Sunday but no one got open.

"We think Devin and Michael can make some plays for us downfield," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "We think Stephen Burton has the capability of doing that as well. We're going to continue to take some shots. We took a shot (Sunday) with Michael.

"We expect to do it again in this ball game against San Francisco, and we think that those guys can come up with some plays for us down the field."

If that is the case, then Musgrave is going to have to let Ponder take an occasional deep shot in order to at least create the perception a legitimate vertical pass is even part of this offense.

Otherwise, defenses are going to be able to stack the box and simply dare the Vikings to pass against them.

It remains to be seen if the down-the-field pass comes into play on Sunday in the Vikings' final game without Simpson. It will be interesting to learn exactly what Simpson does bring to this offense when he returns in Week 4 at Detroit.

Simpson, who signed only a one-year, $2 million free-agent contract with the Vikings, caught 50 passes for 725 yards, including a long of 84 yards, with four touchdowns, in 16 games last season in his fourth year with the Bengals.

He averaged 14.5 yards per catch in 2011 after averaging 13.9 yards a reception in five games in 2010. He caught 20 passes and had three touchdowns that season with Cincinnati.

But Simpson had only one catch in eight games in his first two NFL seasons. He clearly has great athletic ability and at times in the offseason and training camp seemed to have good chemistry with Ponder, but his resume is limited.

He also must continue to prove himself off the field after facing a felony charge when about 2 pounds of marijuana was shipped to his northern Kentucky home last September. Simpson pleaded guilty last March and was sentenced to 15 days in jail and three years' probation.

"We're going to be happy to have him back, but we have great receivers right now," Ponder said when asked about Simpson. "They're making plays and we're doing a good job of being efficient and moving the ball. We just have to make plays when we're supposed to. We're not executing on the things we should be doing."

While the Vikings made a relatively inexpensive investment in Simpson, the team did spend for tight end John Carlson. The problem is that Carlson has been just about as silent as Simpson, despite the fact he has been playing.

Signed to a five-year, $25 million contract that included $9.1 million in guarantees, Carlson has been the target of only one Ponder pass in two games. Carlson missed almost all of training camp after injuring the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during a practice, but the Vikings claim he is healthy.

If that is the case, it's a mystery why Carlson has been a non-factor so far.

Rudolph, who was second on the Vikings with five receptions for 67 yards in the opener, caught three passes for 35 yards and a touchdown on Sunday but was not targeted until 6:34 remained in the third quarter.

The expectation was that Rudolph would serve as Ponder's safety net and Musgrave would consistently utilize his tight ends.

So far that hasn't happened.

The deep ball also doesn't seem to be an option - at least not yet.

That means the Vikings' passing game essentially has been the Percy Harvin Show with a supporting cast that has yet to establish any type of defined role.

If this offense is going to be productive, that is going to have to change. 

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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