One more week of preseason to go before the real action begins against Jacksonville. After Friday's performance, it's a good thing that we're starting the season with the "cake walk" portion of the schedule. Unfortunately, the Jaguars and Colts are probably looking at us and thinking the same thing. We looked pretty bad on offense, but our defense looked pretty good. Let me put that defensive performance into context however. Three out of the Chargers five offensive linemen didn't play on Friday. The Chargers were so concerned about the implications of that situation that they decided not to play Phillip Rivers. They also didn't play Antonio Gates and Ryan Matthews. In fact, San Diego had eighteen players sitting out of the game against the Vikings. The Vikings didn't exactly take advantage of that situation on offense but made a pretty good showing on defense.
It's tough to know if the additions of Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield makes this much difference to the starting squad. There's pretty good reason to believe that Allen and Williams do, but as they won't be playing next week I would imagine we won't really know until the regular season starts. I'm concerned about the fact that the Chargers were playing backups against our first defensive unit AND that the Chargers had 12 penalties in the first half AND that a number of D-line penetrations occurred when our players essentially went unblocked into the backfield (e.g. Fred Evans sack on the first defensive series occurred when the Chargers left guard inexplicably pulled right as if a running play had been called. Evans ran up the vacated space, was engaged by the Chargers' center who was then accidentally bumped from behind by the same pulling guard. Whitehurst didn't stand a chance, and the play resulted in a 7 yard loss. Later in the 4th defensive series, Kevin Williams sacked Whitehurst when Whitehurst was forced up into the pocket by an unblocked Robison). So, it could be that our defense is returning to form again, but I am still having trouble forgetting the beat down our defense received in San Francisco in week 1 of the preseason.
There were some nice individual efforts on the part of the Vikings defense. Jared Allen had a very good game and seemed to do everything well. He had sacks, tackles for a loss on running plays, caused holding and false start penalties and also dropped back into coverage. Kevin Williams looked strong up the middle, and Jasper Brinkley showed up and made his presence felt in the Charger backfield on several occasions.
Two defensive players who appeared to have a tough time were Josh Robinson who got picked on quite a bit before leaving the game with a concussion. And Chris Carr hasn't looked good all pre-season. Is it too late to ask Benny Sapp to come back this year?
On the offensive side of the ball, things just didn't seem to work this week. The 1st team offensive line that was been pretty okay this pre-season to this point looked like last year's line (and maybe worse). The offensive line struggled on a number of passing and running plays. Kalil in particular looked bad on passing downs. Kalil has been responsible for a sack in each of the pre-season games, and he hasn't been playing that many series in each game until this past Friday. Kalil gave up sacks in the 3rd and 8th offensive series of the game. The first sack occurred when Larry English, a linebacker, went around him. The second sack occurred when Kalil was beaten inside for a 6 yard loss while Johnson and Loadholt both struggled on the play as well. On the very next play (2nd and goal from the 16), Kalil was beaten again which forced Ponder to rush his throw. He overthrew Harvin out of bounds. While Kalil is the only rookie on the line at this point and plays the toughest position, I was hoping to see him be more dominant this pre-season. I've counted four sacks against Kalil this pre-season and if I took his 3 appearances this preseason and gave them full-game equivalents, I'd guesstimate that he would have had around 10 sacks against him over the past 3 pre-season games. Perhaps I get nervous easily, but I'm preparing to get seriously freaked out if this trend continues over the next month. We've got a lot riding on him being able to hold down his position.
In addition to Kalil's challenges, everyone on the line managed to look bad on one play or another. Sullivan got overpowered when not getting help from one of the guards. The first play of the game resulted in an incompletion when Sullivan was pushed three yards back and allowed his guy to jump up and block Ponder's pass. Fusco got a penalty (again). Loadholt looked a bit slow on the right side and was charged with a sack. Johnson looked overmatched on a couple of plays. All in all though, Kalil is the one that stood out to me as having the most challenges.
Before my thoughts on Christian Ponder's game let me give you a statement made during the game by Paul Allen: "It's really unfair to completely judge Christian, positively or negatively, until he gets a crack to play with Adrian Peterson. When he has all of his complementary talent and his weapons it'll be proper to analyze him." Such is the wisdom of Paul Allen. But still, there are 31 other teams in the league who don't have Adrian Peterson on their team, and they seem to do just fine evaluating their quarterbacks. And what happened to the idea that good quarterbacks makes the talent around them better. No one's arguing that Ponder is a top tier QB, but the suggestion that Ponder needs Peterson before he can be fairly judged is unfair to both Gerhart and Ponder in my opinion. The truth is that after listening to Paul Allen through the Bills and San Diego games, I'm about as impressed with his views as I am with the replacement refs. I'm just going to chalk this one up to last week's favorite word of the week: Bias.
Anyway, Paul Allen aside, I liked the way Christian Ponder played overall. In fact, I thought he was playing inspired football up until his interception. Here's what I liked: For the first time I can remember, Ponder looked like a NFL QB who regularly made reads, looked off the safeties and stretched the field.
Ponder's offense started with two 3 and outs. That's not great, but Ponder made a nice throw to Jenkins on 3rd and 10 in the second series that looked pretty catchable to me. The third offensive series was Ponder's best in my opinion.
- Play began at the Vikings 29 yard line with a short throw from Ponder to Rudolph. It was a Ponder regular in that the ball traveled only 4 yards past the line of scrimmage and Rudolph picked up 3 additional yards after the catch. However, on the play Ponder looked off one or two other receivers before settling on Rudolph. He looked off Gerhart for sure and possibly saw Ellison too. It was a really nice play.
- Gerhart had two runs of 9 yards and 0 yards (after Felton missed a block).
- On 2nd and 10, Ponder made a nice big throw that looked to go through Percy Harvin's hands. The throw was 45 yards from the line of scrimmage.
- On 3rd and 10, Ponder threw a ball to Rudolph (2 yards over the LOS) who made a nice run for the first down.
- Gerhart then ran 7 yards behind Fusco's blocking.
- On 2nd and 3, Ponder made another long throw to Jenkins. Both Jenkins and Chargers safety, Weddle, got their hands on the ball but neither could hold onto it as they collided. On the play, Ponder showed great presence in the pocket and had pretty nice placement on the ball. Due to a holding call on the Chargers Cason, the Vikings got a first down.
- On 1st and 10, Ponder threw a ball to Rhett Ellison for a 2 yard gain.
- Ponder was then sacked when Kalil let Larry English get past him.
- On 3rd and 18, Ponder threw a nice 13 yard pass through the air to Percy Harvin. It didn't get a first down, but what are you going to do on 3rd and 18?
- On 4th and 5, Blair Walsh "splits the uprights" according to Paul Allen. Oops. Actually he missed.
The next offensive series was short lived and ended on a Hilliard fumble which gives me an opportunity to say this: I usually don't feel badly for opposing head coaches, but Norv Turner had my sympathies on Friday. He had to challenge two absurd calls by the officials that seemed to screw up pretty cut and dry turnovers by the Vikings. One of these calls was on Hilliard's fumble. I half expected the head official to apologize while announcing that the initial call was being reversed. The replacement refs have been awful this preseason. In my opinion, the NFL better start digging deep and get ready to pay the regular refs for the regular season. By the way, I can't believe I just said that. I think the regular refs are pretty bad too... but not THIS bad. Anyway, on this series, Ponder threw a ball to Rudolph in which the defender was called for holding. In my opinion, Ponder again showed nice pocket presence and moved his head around looking for options quite nicely.
The fifth offensive series began with the best throw I have seen Ponder make since he started playing for the Vikings. On first and 10 from the Vikings 15, Ponder looked off the safety and then threw a beautiful pass to Harvin for 40 yards. Two plays later, after a 2 yard run by Matt Asiata, Ponder threw a screen in which he first looked off to the left/center of the field and then turned right, looked, and then threw a nice screen pass. Unfortunately for Ponder and the Vikings, the next play didn't go so well. On 3rd and 4, Ponder threw his first interception of the preseason, and the Chargers saw the throw coming from a mile away. If Chargers #39 didn't get the ball, Chargers #31 would have. In fact, had it not been for the two of them going after the ball, I think the interception would have been a pretty easy Pick 6. When looking at the play, one of the defenders jumped the route as if he'd been in the huddle when the play had been called. It was not a good play, but the referees did their best to give the ball back to the Vikings. They initially declared the play an incompletion.
After the interception, Ponder had a 39.2 passer rating. I mention that to make a point; stats are pretty misleading. I think up to the interception, Ponder had been playing his best football since becoming a Viking. He had pocket presence, he looked around the field for receiver options, he didn't panic, and he aired it out. The interception was bad news, but I really liked pretty much everything else to that point.
After the interception, Ponder returned on the next series on a 1st and 20 (after a Fusco holding penalty) and made a nice throw to Reisner in which Ponder again scanned about from the pocket for options. On the next play (2nd and 14), Ponder was sacked when Rudolph was overpowered by a defensive end. The announcers put the fault for the sack on Ponder, but I didn't entirely see it that way and liked the way Ponder hung in there. On 3rd and 19, Ponder tried to hit Matt Asiata on a screen. The throw looked like a poor throw, but Asiata was so well covered that there wasn't much chance of a good outcome on the play and the "poor throw" might actually have been Ponder's only option.
The next series was all runs by Asiata. On the 8th series, which began at the Chargers 28 yard line, Ponder hit Jenkins for 13 yards. On the play, Ponder looked off the center of the field before going to Jenkins. On the next play, the Chargers committed their 12th penalty of the half when they were charged for holding Aromashodu. I didn't see the play the same way the referees did, but the Vikings got the benefit of the call. After two bad plays by Kalil, Ponder found himself with 3rd and goal from the 16. Ponder probably had a good case of the nerves at that point and decided to tuck the ball and run. He scrambled for a 5 yard gain and dove head first. What's with Ponder's head first dives? I can understand if he's almost going to get a first down or score, but this play wasn't close. Ponder needs to figure out how to slide, and if he can't do that he shouldn't run in the first place. The drive ended with a Blair Walsh chip shot field goal.
On the 9th offensive series, Ponder again scrambled. This time on 1st and 10 he ran for 6 yards and again he dove head first. On the next passing play, after 2 Asiata runs, Ponder rolled out right. He was sacked, but the sack was nullified due to a Chargers player hitting Ponder in the head. After a Hilliard running play, Ponder had a nice play action pass to Rudolph. That was followed up with a sack after Loadholt was beaten badly on the right side. Then Asiata, who I think is, without a doubt, going to be the Vikings 3rd running back, picked up a 1st down on 2nd and 17 but promptly undid all of the good feeling generated by that run by fumbling the ball just yards from the end zone. And that's how Ponder's time on the field ended on Friday.
All in all, I think Ponder showed a lot of what I have been wanting to see from him. To me his willingness to stretch the field was hugely important, but more importantly, he was effective at it. Even though the Chargers jumped his out route for an interception, I think seeing more games like this one from Ponder will help open up the field for Ponder and the Vikings. And apart from the play with the interception, Ponder did a good job of not staring down his receivers. Like I said, I liked what I saw from Ponder for the most part this game. I hope I see more of it from him when the season opens up against Jacksonville.
Following Ponder, Joe Webb came in at quarterback, and he played very well. He only saw two series, but the first of those series had Webb marching the team down the field until Coleman fumbled the ball on a run. In the two series, Webb was 6 of 8 for 59 yards and one of those incomplete passes was a ball that Webb threw away. Webb was elusive (of course) and ran for a first down (though it was negated by a defensive holding call on the play) and was accurate and had a rhythm going in the first drive. Coleman had five runs in the series for 2, -2, 1 and 5 yards before fumbling on his final carry. Interspersed between those runs, Webb threw an 11 yard throw to Aromashodu on 2nd and 8. On 2nd and 12, he eluded the pass rush and threw a nice ball for a 10 yard gain. After a Webb scramble (and Charger penalty) for a 1st down, Coleman had two runs. And then Webb got rolling with 4 consecutive completions to Aromashodu (8 yards), Reisner (11 yards), Reisner (11 yards), and again to Aromashodu (for 9 yards). On 2nd and 1, Coleman then fumbled the ball and the drive ended. This drive made me again think of the "change of pace" argument that favors Webb as a backup QB. For my part, I think the "change of pace" stuff unnecessarily diminishes what Webb is capable of. While he hasn't had the benefit of a lot of time on the field to hone his craft, I think he has the potential to be very, very good. He's already amazing at times, and he's already shown that he can dominate games and make the players around him better, but we'll see how he does with more time in practice as a QB. His upside could be huge... "could be."
On the second drive, Webb threw a wobbly 20 yard ball over Reisner's head which was Webb's only bad throw of the evening. Coleman then ran for 3 yards. On 3rd and 7 Webb finished the series by throwing the ball away on a play in which a Charger came through the line untouched and managed to grab and hang onto Webb's leg. With another defender zeroing in on Webb, Webb threw the ball out of bounds. And that was the end of Webb's time on the field.
This was a very nice outing for Webb. He looked sharp. I look forward to seeing him play more in this week's preseason game. I also think the Vikings should put Kalil out there for more tuning up prior to the start of the regular season. Both players could benefit from the extra reps in my opinion.
So that's if for this week. Basically the O-line sucked. Our quarterbacks looked good to me; Ponder made real strides, and Webb looked like he was reliving his games against Detroit and Washington for a moment there. And even Rosenfels looked like whatever coffin the Vikings had buried him in this preseason did him well. After the rest, Rosenfels was 6 for 6 for 51 yards and a TD. Only Tavaris Jackson could have done better according to one recently departed Vikings head coach.