EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. Fingers have been squarely pointed in quarterback Christian Ponder's direction the past few weeks as the Minnesota Vikings' passing game has ground nearly to a halt and struggled to find any sense of rhythm or continuity.
Ponder accepts the responsibility and has taken the blame that comes along with being Minnesota's leader on the field. His coaches and teammates have worked recently to deflect the fault away from their struggling second-year starting quarterback. Indeed, Ponder needs better protection from the offensive line, which started the season strong but has struggled as teams have amped up blitz packages in recent weeks. And receivers need to get better separation from defensive backs.
But with a few extra days of preparation time due to playing on Thursday last week, the Vikings' coaches have been able to dissect just what is troubling the passing offense and came in this week with a few teaching points for Ponder, the line and his receivers. The main points this week: getting back to fundamentals and concentrating on execution. Plus, some of the examples show why all the responsibility doesn't fall on the shoulders of Ponder.
"If it's a 12-yard route, not cutting it short at eight yards," receiver Percy Harvin said of some of the issues in the passing game. "That just throws off the timing of the quarterback, whether he has a three- or five-step drop. Just the fundamentals, because the plays are there. We look on film and guys are open. We're not clicking at the same time."
Ponder and his receivers in particular Harvin succeeded earlier this season by playing to everyone's strengths, using a short, quick passing game and relying on players to gain yards after the catch. Meanwhile, Ponder avoided turnovers and kept the offense moving.
In recent weeks, Ponder has been turnover prone and seemed hesitant while being blitzed often. Coach Leslie Frazier said many of the blitzes the team has seen have been designed to stop running back Adrian Peterson. But the result is still more pressure on the offensive line and Ponder and more defenders in Ponder's face.
"It goes back to execution," Ponder said of the issues. "We've got to do a better job. We've been seeing a lot of pressure. I've got to do a better job of getting the ball out of my hands. I think teams have realized that. And my biggest thing is, I can't take a negative play."
The troubles started five weeks ago, when Minnesota passed for a total of 100 yards against the Detroit Lions but managed to win thanks to two return touchdowns. Ponder bounced back with a big game against the Tennessee Titans in another win but committed his first turnovers of the year. Three more turnovers hurt in a loss to the Washington Redskins, even though Ponder threw for 352 yards. Then Minnesota had just 43 net yards passing against the Arizona Cardinals and 229 yards in last week's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who rank 31st in the league against the pass.
"I think it's part of the process," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "We've got a young quarterback, as we realize, that's in the developmental stage. And he's done some outstanding things through the first half of our regular season. We've also done some not so outstanding things as an offense, and him personally. It's part of the process, I believe. He's going to work through it. We're going to work through it as an offense and try to be more consistent in the accuracy department."
And Ponder will, indeed, need the help from the rest of the offense. Frazier says everyone needs to improve. Harvin leads the league with 60 receptions and has 667 receiving yards, but even he said he took a close look at his play during the extended break and said he needs to be sharper.
Jerome Simpson, signed in the offseason to be a complementary second receiver, has just seven catches for 95 yards in the four games he's played. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has only two catches the past two weeks. After being sacked just nine times in the first five weeks, Ponder has been sacked 10 times in the past three games.
Timing issues are playing a big part.
"Our guys are open, but like I said, it just goes to sometimes our route just being short and not timing up exactly with Christian, with his drop step and he just missing us that one second, or vice versa," Harvin said. "So, we just got to somehow time it up with his drop the exact same as we're coming out of our break and plays are going to be there."
While stressing precise routes, Harvin said Musgrave has also added a few new "wrinkles." Musgrave talked about giving his receivers different routes to avoid predictability. Simpson, for instance, runs a lot of go routes along the sideline.
After the coaching staff's evaluation, Minnesota expects improvement, and Harvin said the necessary adjustments were "a little tweak."
"But those little tweaks, they end up real big," Harvin said.
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