Christian Ponder and Minnesota Vikings are Two Pieces From Different Puzzles

Christian Ponder could smile more often in a different situation.

With records for single-season receiving yards, passing yards, receiving touchdowns and passing touchdowns all being set within the last decade, the NFL has evolved into a league that is dominated by passing games. More importantly, the quarterback position has been elevated from a very important position to one that is crucial for success.

In spite of that, 2013 will likely be remembered for one specific running-back opposed to any passer. Adrian Peterson’s unprecedented season saw him crack 2,000 yards rushing only 12 months or so after tearing his ACL on the field. Peterson averaged 6.0 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns as he carried the Vikings into the post-season.

However, despite his best efforts in the post-season, the Vikings went one and done and only just made it into the playoffs as a wildcard team. It was somewhat telling that Peterson couldn’t carry his Vikings past the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers, the best quarterback in the league. The simplistic view is that the value of a historic running-back is nowhere near the value of the best quarterback of a single-season, but that is an unfair assessment to make.

While you are always going to be in a better position with an elite quarterback over an elite running-back, Peterson’s situation compared to any other elite quarterback’s was completely different. While Rodgers had a plethora of weapons at his disposal and an effective at times running-game, Peterson was in close to the worst possible situation.

He did have a decent offensive line and a good blocking tight end, but neither of those things could make up for the dysfunctional offense that was his supporting cast. The Vikings have built a counterproductive passing game to complement Peterson’s running ability. Christian Ponder is a weak-armed quarterback with decent athleticism and excellent intelligence. However, the Vikings play a scheme that needs a strong arm to fully prosper and doesn’t need great levels of intelligence.

If Peterson was a quarterback, it would have been the equivalent of him having a huge arm but playing in a west-coast offense. It simply wouldn’t fit.

The Peterson Effect

When defenses line up across from the Minnesota Vikings’ offense, they prioritize stopping one man and one man alone, Peterson. As a result of that, very rarely do defenses use their nickel packages or bring extra defensive backs onto the field and they crowd the line of scrimmage to try and force the Vikings to pass the ball. According to Pro Football Focus, Peterson faced more eight man boxes, 120, in the NFL last year than anyone else. He ranked third in total percentage, with a 34.48 percent mark that is significantly higher than the league average 23.25 percent.

The only players who saw more eight man boxes more often were the New York Jets’ Shonn Greene and San Francisco 49ers’ Frank Gore. Greene played on a team that had no real passing game and ran a very rigid, tight offense.  The 49ers have the best offensive line in the league and played the season with one dangerous runner and one quarterback who couldn’t throw deep. It made plenty of sense for teams to crowd the line against those two backs.

As a whole, teams shouldn’t be desperate to crowd the line against the Vikings. Michael Jenkins, Jerome Simpson and Percy Harvin played the most snaps for the Vikings at wide receiver last year. Harvin is an all-around talent who can do anything asked of a receiver, while Simpson and Jenkins are explosive receivers who can get down the field. They certainly aren’t the types of receivers who are consistently going to beat you underneath with their route-running.

With Peterson seeing so many eight-man boxes and the offense predicated on the abilities of their star running-back, it makes sense that a staple of the Vikings’ offense would be to throw deep off of play-action. From a scheme point of view, it is. From an execution point of view, it’s far from it. That is all because of Ponder’s ability and style of play at the quarterback position.

Lack of Aggression

Ponder isn’t necessarily a bad player, but he is miscast in his role with the Vikings. Typically, when a team takes a quarterback in the first round of the draft, they look to craft an offense that plays to their strengths and hides their weaknesses. The Vikings could easily have done that with Peterson, because Peterson is so good he will be effective in almost any role asked of him, but trying to force Ponder into the overall puzzle showed some disastrous results on the field last year.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ponder averaged 6.3 yards per attempt on play action passes. That was lowest for all qualifying quarterbacks at 27th overall. Significantly, Ponder’s average per attempt only increased by 0.3 yards per attempt compared to non-play-action passes. This, despite ranking third in play-action pass attempt percentage. For comparison’s sake, Robert Griffin III attempted the most play-action passes last year and averaged 11.8 yards per attempt on those plays, a full six yards per attempt more than on attempts without play-action.

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On this play the Vikings are just 25 yards away from the endzone. This is a prime play-action formation with a run-heavy set to the right side of the center. Tight-end Kyle Rudolph and fullback Jerome Felton indicate that the Vikings are looking to run the ball over the right-side and the Packers’ defense has reacted as such by leaving just two defensive backs in coverage to the top of the screen, a safety inside and cornerback outside.

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Ponder fakes the ball to Peterson at the snap and Felton stays in to pass-block. Ponder has a clean pocket to scan the field before finding the soft-spot in the defense’s coverage.

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Ponder has the time and an easy read on the deep safety in the middle of the field. If the safety moves across the field to the left side of the offense, he needs to immediately throw the ball to Kyle Rudolph who is matched up with a cornerback towards the bottom of the screen. Rudolph is a matchup nightmare and would be favored in this situation on any pass that just gives him a chance to win it.

The safety, red line, hesitates however and stays in the middle of the field, which means that Ponder has an easy touchdown, yellow circle, for Michael Jenkins who is running right by the safety who lined up over him in the slot. A strong-armed, aggressive quarterback would be trusting his arm at this point and releasing the ball over the safeties head to allow his receiver to run underneath it. At worst, he would give his receiver a chance to draw a pass interference flag in the endzone, while at worst the defensive back makes an outstanding play to prevent the touchdown.

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Instead, Ponder scrambles outside left tackle and is tackled short of the first down marker. Without the All-22 tape, this doesn’t appear to be a negative play for Ponder who plays it safe in scoring position. With the All-22, it’s clear that Ponder settled for the safe option when there w as a touchdown to be scored.

The last play alone doesn’t say that Ponder lacks the aggression needed to fully function in this offense. Circumstances could have dictated that he settles for a field goal depending on the team’s overall philosophy. However, when you add in this play to the previous one, there is a recurrent trend that hints at a quarterback playing scared.

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The Vikings are lined up in a passing set with three receivers to the left, a tight end to the right and Adrian Peterson to Ponder’s right in the backfield. With the two tight slot receivers to the left, the Packers have brought a slot cornerback and safety close to the line of scrimmage who are in position to cover the receivers and play any potential run from Peterson.

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The inside slot receiver motions across the formation before the snap and Ponder fakes the hand-off to Peterson after the snap. That makes defenders hesitate across the board and the linebackers initially follow Peterson as the deep safety shifts to that side of the field also. Rudolph stays in to block Clay Matthews initially.

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Ponder has rolled out to the right side of the pocket and he has two targets who are free. Rudolph is the safe throw who will have to fight a defender if he is to gain any yards after the catch, but Michael Jenkins is about to come free deep down the field for a first down. Jenkins runs an out route that the safety covering him couldn’t get to if thrown on time because he is moving deep down the field.

At this point, Ponder should be releasing the ball throwing it to the point where Jenkins is coming out of his break.

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Instead he plays it safe again by scrambling inside Matthews after throwing a pump-fake. Ponder wasn’t protecting a field goal attempt on this occasion and you can’t expect to be a successful offense if you are not making this type of throw for fear of a turnover. There was plenty of space between Jenkins and the sideline to fit the ball into. If Ponder didn’t make this play because he’s not comfortable making that throw on the run, then that is another aspect of his game that doesn’t fit with the overall philosophy of the Vikings’ offense.

Lacking Arm Strength

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The Vikings love to use play-action close to the endzone. With Peterson’s presence on the field, it’s obvious why. Defenders are always going to bite on the play-fake when they are that close to the line, which means Ponder can often find a wide-open receiver after rolling out of the pocket.

On this occasion, Ponder is asked to make a play after the roll-out that he simply isn’t capable of making.

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Ponder rolls out of the pocket and keeps his eyes downfield as he moves towards the sideline. However, the Packers’ defensive backs didn’t bite on the fake this time and every potential receiver is covered.

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With no options open, Ponder does well to avoid Clay Matthews in the open field and keeps moving towards the sideline to give his receivers time to come free. Crucially, he still has his eyes downfield as he moves towards the sideline. Ponder has done everything right to this point.

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At this point, he has two options. He can continue scrambling to settle for a field goal, or he can attempt a difficult throw to Jenkins who is coming free at the back of the endzone. Ponder does well to even see Jenkins coming free and he anticipates the route after keeping his eyes downfield, understanding that there is space over the middle of the endzone.

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Even when he recognizes the coverage, makes the right decisions and is aggressive enough to take advantage of them, Ponder’s physical arm strength and ability to throw across his body accurately lets him down. The green arrow is the throw that he needs to make if Jenkins is to have a chance at making the reception, while the red arrow is the pass that he actually throws. A pass that goes directly to the Packers’ defensive back.

Positive Plays That Mask Bigger Misses

This is a play that the Vikings ran relatively often during last season. It is a play that uses the threat of Peterson and ability of Percy Harvin in space to force the defense to give them something. It worked at times, but a large chunk of the play-design is made redundant because of the quarterback under center.

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The play is designed to attack the defense deep with an outside receiver running a go route down the field, while Harvin is motioning across the field at the snap into the flat. Combine that with the play-action to Peterson and something in the coverage is bound to give. Either the outside receiver will be able to get behind a secondary that reacts to Peterson’s play-fake, or it drops deep enough to cover the receiver and Harvin has space to work with from the flat.

This play comes against zone coverage, but it would work against man coverage also because cornerbacks are rarely aggressive enough to track the receiver to the other side of the field before he finds space to make a play in.

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On this occasion, Ponder makes the right decision because the 49ers’ secondary has dropped deep to cover Jenkins and Rudolph going down the field.

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Harvin ends up running into more space than a playmaker of his caliber ever should be afforded on a football field and takes full advantage for a first down and 10+ yard gain.

This is an example of the play coming off perfectly and it appears that Ponder made the right decision. However, when you compare it against another occasion, it appears that Ponder didn’t make the right decision as much as he is limited to only that option.

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On a similar play-design against the Seattle Seahawks, Harvin is moving across the formation at the snap, but instead of running into the opposing flat he spins and goes back in the direction he came from. Peterson runs a play-fake over left guard while Rudolph and Jenkins attack the defense deep down each sideline.

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Ponder doesn’t take the time he is afforded in the pocket to scan the field. Instead he looks straight to Harvin in the flat, despite the fact that three defenders are in position to converge on him once he gets the ball. Had Ponder sat in the pocket and looked downfield, he would have see that Kyle Rudolph was in a perfect position for a big gain down the left sideline.

Rudolph was running past Brandon Browner, while Browner wasn’t looking back at the quarterback for any ball that was going to come his way. Earl Thomas, the Seahawks’ deep safety, is very fast, but even he couldn’t close on a well-thrown pass to Rudolph in this scenario.

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At this point, Rudolph is turning his head back to the football when the ball should already be on it’s way to him. Instead he watches the ball fly towards Harvin in the flat who ultimately gains nine yards as he beats the defender to the outside. There is no pass-rusher in position to force the ball from Ponder, while he has two more receivers between him and Rudolph who are also coming free. Harvin was always going to be an option as the play develops, there was no reason that he should have predetermined to throw him the ball before he could read the defense.

That is either a limitation of Ponder’s or a directive of the coaching staff who don’t believe in his ability to push the ball down the field. Of course, they are right not to believe in his ability to push the ball down the field, but that is their fault for running a scheme and not developing a personnel unit that better show off his abilities.

It’s unclear if they are going to correct that this year, but they have definitely added some pieces that potentially point to a change of approach. The addition of Greg Jennings gives Ponder a legitimate possession receiver on the outside who isn’t going to be a gadget receiver the way Percy Harvin was, nor is he going to be able to stretch the defense. Jennings has no other uses but as a possession receiver who can make the odd big play. That is not a knock on his ability, because he is one of the best in the league at what he does.

Jairus Wright may simply slot into the Harvin role, but they could look to use Cordarrelle Patterson as the unpredictable piece of the offense. Patterson isn’t like Wright or Harvin, his frame is much bigger. He has the potential to be a superstar, but is very raw as a rookie. The Vikings will likely need to get creative with him on the field, which hints at them potentially altering their usage of their personnel groupings.

The fact that Michael Jenkins wasn’t re-signed is also a sign that they may be done with the vertical passing routes and are looking to build more around Ponder’s strengths, while there is no chance that Matt Cassel could ever make this offense work after he was signed as Ponder’s backup.

As the saying goes, better late than never.

For the argument that circles around the true value of an elite running-back, Adrian Peterson showed us last year what the floor is for a player of his caliber. He overcame injury, his supporting cast and a dysfunctional scheme to carry his team to the playoffs. He may not carry the same effect as an elite quarterback, but he definitely was worthy of that MVP award.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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