This play has been dissected and discussed ad nauseam already in both Ted's Stock Market Report and Chris' kneejerk Reaction articles. So, there was a part of me that didn't even want to post this, but heck, it was a fun exercise for me and I thought I could provide a little bit better screenshots to illustrate an analysis of the play in question. Purple Caribbean did an excellent job posting some screencaps to this play in the comments already and here are a few more. I would highly recommend watching the play in question contained in this video link (11 second mark to 20 second mark) to get a feel for the play in real time.
Most of the discussion stems from the question: who's to blame for the interception, Ponder or Simpson? There's some debate on whether Simpson slows down out of his break, or stutter steps and I think a case can be made for that. But there is also some debate on whether or not Ponder places the ball accurately or puts too much zip on it, and I think a case can be made for that too. So, let's break it down:
Ponder INT Routes (via ccnorsemen)
After a successful pass play on the previous play (for a first down) Ponder is in the shot gun with 3 wide receivers, a RB to his right and TE Rudolph on the end of the line (who will also run a route). Here you can see the routes that each of the five receivers was running (and interesting side note, Jennings is in the slot). You can see that none of the WR was running a deep route. Jennings is running a short drag, Wright is running a comeback and Simpson, his primary read is running a post route. Rudolph is on the line with a short "in" route or dump-off option and Gerhart runs out into the flat.
So, let's take a look at what the defense is going to do in the next screenshot.
Ponder INT Defense (via ccnorsemen)
The Texans are in a base 3-4 defense and runs what looks like a 3-3 fire zone blitz with three members of the secondary dropping back deep and the other safety and two linebackers covering the middle in a zone. They are rushing 5 with one OLB joining the D-line and one MLB blitzing. Ponder is probably hoping the secondary plays a deep zone and that Simpson, again his primary read, can get underneath the defense at his break on his post route (which is exactly what he does). The next shot shows each player begin their part of the play:
Ponder INT 2 (via ccnorsemen)
As the play begins to unfold you can see the OLB at the top of the frame come off the line to pick up Gerhart. That allows the MLB to shift to his left while Simpson enters his zone. The center Sullivan shifts to his right and now there are three linemen against only 2 defenders, hence the other MLB has a clear shot at Ponder. And with both the OLB and MLB blitzing on the left side of the offensive formation, there is a LOT of field real estate where Jennings and Wright are located. Fast forwarding a bit:
Ponder INT Read (via ccnorsemen)
Above you can see that Ponder has not taken his eye off of Simpson and now has a blitzing MLB about two steps from closing in. You can see that the other MLB took a bad angle in covering his zone and Simpson is about to break past him with the Cornerback still covering deep. Ponder has about 1 second (or less) left to make a decision before he's going to get sacked. I've circled where the window is for Simpson to make the catch.
Ponder INT 5 (via ccnorsemen)
In the shot above, a few milliseconds later, Ponder has made his decision and is throwing the ball to Simpson at precisely the window I identified earlier. At this moment, notice how wide open #82 Kyle Rudolph is on the dump off option. Jennings will end up getting picked up by the Safety, but Wright also has about 7 yards of real estate between the other cornerback who played deep against his comeback route (would have been a perfect option to pick up a few positive yards). Never-the-less, Ponder is going for a first down play here rather than a short, safe throw (that's what everyone wants to see, right?). Fast forward a little bit:
Ponder INT Ball (via ccnorsemen)
Here the ball has already been thrown and the defense has already reacted. You can see the ball placement relative to where Simpson is during the end of his route. It's a little high, and Simpson is straining to reach the ball with only 1 arm. That could be because he slowed down his route and is not exactly where Ponder expected him to be, or it could be because Ponder had poor ball placement on the throw. As a casual outside observer, it is impossible for any of us not involved in the play to know which one of these two reasons it is (and IMO it's actually a little bit of both). Regardless though, I don't blame Ponder for the read at the very least. It was an ok read in this situation, especially with a blitzer in his face coming totally free. Had the ball been placed better, or had Simpson come out of his break better, or had the ball been caught, Simpson would have easily made it to at least the 30 yard line before being touched by a defender. So that play had the potential to be another first down throw. Let's fast forward a bit more:
Ponder INT 9 (via ccnorsemen)
Now the ball has been tipped and is heading towards the safety that was playing deep in his zone but then ran up towards Simpson once the ball was thrown. The safety was ready to make the tackle and prevent yards after the catch had the ball been caught, but had a great heads up play to adjust to the tipped ball and came down with the interception. Interestingly, the cornerback who had primary coverage on Simpson never really adjusts to his post route break and is nowhere near the ball or Simpson at this point in the play. If Simpson doesn't get a hand on it and tip it up, the ball probably hits the turf rather harmlessly around the 26 yard-line, right in front of the safety.
So, what are we to make of this one play? Is it that big of a deal? It was literally the 2nd play of the Preseason so perhaps this entire article is pointless. That said, Jarius Wright, Greg Jennings and Kyle Rudolph also come open on this play and Ponder completely ignored them during the 3 seconds he had from the moment the ball was snapped until he threw it. Jennings breaks in front of the safety that is pulling up in a zone, and Gerhart draws all of the attention on the left side of the field. So, there was a clear window open to Jennings as well. Wright runs a great route and is at least 7 yards in front of his defender at his break. Even Kyle Rudolph, who pokes off the line, is essentially wide open with no Texan anywhere near him at the point when Ponder throws to Simpson. While none of those receiving options would have gotten much more than 5-6 yards on the pass play, they would have been an easy completion. So, I think it's fair to criticize Ponder for locking onto his primary read and not seeing the rest of the field, even if he did have a blitzer in his face and had to get rid of it quickly.
But, I don't fault Ponder for not getting past his first read though, because he chose a throwing window that normally would have been safe, and it didn't really have any defenders in the area. Again, Ponder did have the blitzing MLB coming at him totally untouched and if anything I'd put the majority of the blame for this interception not on Ponder or Simpson, but instead on John Sullivan. He crashed down to the right side to help out Fusco and Loadholt, but they didn't need it because of the Zone Blitz. That left the three of them pass blocking against only 2 defenders, which is why the LB broke free in the first place. Had the blocking been solid up front with Sullivan taking on the blitzing LB, Ponder would have had plenty of time to hit Simpson with a better pass, or even check out his secondary reads for a 5-6 yard completion. I'm sure that Sullivan was expecting the OLB to blitz rather than drop back in coverage, and it's possible that Gerhart was the secondary read on the play (he was well covered).
At the end of the day, this is only the Preseason and I personally am not worried. I like that Ponder is looking to throw downfield, and got the ball off to avoid a sack. It's just unfortunate that it was tipped for an INT. I
think hope that Ponder and Simpson will continue to refine their timing and placement to the point where this play is made more often than not. And if not, well, we've got Cordarrelle Patterson waiting in the wings, and something tells me he might have either run a better route or somehow come down with the ball.