Vikings, 49ers defy the passing odds

Christian Ponder (Andy Lyons/Getty)

The Vikings and 49ers are similar in their passing games in several respects. While they don't throw the deep ball often, they are finding ways to get yards in the passing game. See what the stats and the players have to say about it.

Sunday's battle between the Associated Press' top-ranked team in the NFL and the 27th-ranked Vikings might actually show a lot of similarities on offense, especially in the passing game.

While Christian Ponder and the Vikings offense have taken some criticism this week with the perception that he isn't throwing the ball deep often enough, there isn't much contrast between how the Vikings operate and the 49ers' passing philosophy.

Ponder leads the league with a 75.8 completion percentage, but 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is also one of six quarterbacks to have a completion percentage in the 70s, too. And neither Ponder nor Smith has been airing out the ball much.

Ponder and Smith are both tied for 24th in the league with only five completions each of 20 or more yards and neither of them have a completion more than 40 yards.

"That's one thing we're lacking is big plays and we want to strive to get better at, but we're not going to force things down the field," Ponder said. "We're going to take what the defense gives us. But we're going to try to do some things to create big plays. That's one area we do need to get better at."

Up and down the stats line, Ponder and Smith are linked closely. Ponder ranks 30th in the NFL in average length of pass, 6.35 yards, while Smith is tied for 32nd at 6.21. Only Miami's Ryan Tannehill and Arizona's Kevin Kolb join them with less than 7 yards a pass.

The length of passes was the hot topic Wednesday at Winter Park. Players and coaches repeated the mantra: They want more explosive plays, but they don't want to force the ball.

"You'd like to get some explosives. We talk about it all the time. That does help when you're trying to put points on the board," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "It takes a little bit off the offense and really challenges the defense. At the same time, being able to grind it out and control the tempo of the game and the clock is a plus as well, as long as you're getting the ball in the end zone. There are different ways to get it done, but we'd definitely like to get a few more explosive plays in our offense for sure."

But here's the rub: While the Vikings haven't been pushing the ball downfield much, they still have one of the best average gains per pass attempt. They are ranked fifth in the league at 8.31 yards and Ponder knows it.

"We're finding ways to make big plays still. We're averaging 8.3 yards per catch, which is up there in the tops of the league," he 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. We're not going to force anything that's not there."

And, not surprisingly, San Francisco isn't too far behind in that category, ranked 12th with an average gain of 7.67 yards.

So, how are they doing it? Quite simply by having some of the top yards-after-the-catch receivers.

Percy Harvin leads the league with 148 yards of his 188 receiving yards coming after the catch. He's been a big reason for the Vikings ranking sixth in that category with an average of 6.11 yards after the catch (the 49ers rank ninth at 5.58).

"He's unbelievable, man. He's so tough mentally and physically, and he's so gifted and he works his butt off and he's a leader on this team as well," Ponder said. "He's everything, doing more than what we ask him to do. He shows up to work every day and works hard in practice and it's showing up for him. He's one of the best players on this team."

The Vikings are taking heat on not going for the home run often enough, and that might change when Jerome Simpson returns from his three-game suspension, but until then they insist they don't want to force the issue down the field, especially when they have Harvin's ability to elude tackles and turn short passes into big gains.


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.


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