Christian Ponder (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)
While Christian Ponder leads the league in completion percentage, he has been lacking big gains, he admitted.
Christian Ponder seems to have found the precision passing that eluded him when he first took over as the Minnesota Vikings quarterback.
Now he’s looking for the big plays to start coming next.
Ponder leads the NFL with a 75.8 completion rate through the first two games, a huge step in the right direction after completing just 54.3 percent of his passes in 11 games last season.
The accuracy has helped the Vikings (1-1) put together some long, methodical scoring drives against the Jaguars and Colts, but the momentum-shifting quick strikes have yet to materialize.
Only two of Ponder’s 47 completions have gone for 20 yards, while the Adrian Peterson-led ground game has just one rush of 20 yards so far in this young season.
“That’s one thing we’re lacking is big plays,” Ponder said on Wednesday. “Obviously we want to strive to get better at and make those progressions and making those plays. We’re not going to force things downfield. We’re going to keep taking what the defense gives us, but we’re going to do some things to try to create big plays. That’s one area we can get better at.”
Good luck with that this week, when the Vikings host the San Francisco 49ers (2-0) and their hard-nosed defense, which has kept the high-flying Packers and Lions under wraps in the first two weeks.
Of course, standing on the other sideline with the 49ers will be Randy Moss, the embodiment of the big-play offense that used to be the Vikings hallmark.
He may not be the dominant force that he was in his first seven years in purple, and he may have alienated some with a disastrous second stint in Minnesota in 2010, but there is no doubt he will cast an awfully large shadow when he plays his first regular season game at the Metrodome as a member of the visiting team.
If the Vikings are going to be able to break through against the Niners the way their NFC North counterparts have failed to do, they have to find a way to get the ball deeper down the field, like they did so often with Moss around the turn of the century.
With speedster Jerome Simpson suspended for the first three games of the season, the offense doesn’t have the player to stretch the field that keeps opposing safeties honest.
Percy Harvin has been successful thus far, but opponents are able to key on him in the passing game and leave other receivers such as Devin Aromashodu and Michael Jenkins single covered on the outside because they’re not concerned with getting beat deep.
That leaves Ponder with Harvin underneath and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson, a prized offseason signing who has yet to catch a pass this season, as his top targets.
“If we get a certain look from a defense, we will take the shot,” Ponder said. “But right now we’re not getting those looks.”
Jacksonville kept two safeties back for much of the season opener, surprising the Vikings considering that Simpson was out and Minnesota figured to try to keep the ball on the ground with Peterson.
But in Indianapolis, they started to see more of the single-high safety look as the Colts moved their other safety closer to the line of scrimmage to concentrate on stopping the run.
That mean more one-on-one coverage outside for the receivers, but the Vikings rarely made the Colts pay for it. Ponder couldn’t connect on a deep throw to Jenkins and another to Harvin, and the Vikings lost 23-20.
“We’d like to take advantage,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “That’s one of the things you’d like to think you can benefit from is having a good run game and being able to connect on some plays down the field. We tried in that game against Indy and weren’t able to connect and we’re going to try again this week if we get people crowding the line of scrimmage.”
It may have to wait one more game. The Niners defense has given up just 41 points in the first two games, though they do rank 19th in the league in yards passing allowed.
Aaron Rodgers threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns in the opener, but Matthew Stafford was harassed into a miserable 19-for-32, 230-yard performance last week.
So against a defense that yields little against the run, hitting a big play over the top may be their best chance.
For now, the Vikings are content to remain patient. They don’t want Ponder to feel the pressure to try to force something to happen down the field the way Brett Favre would often do here.
“The hard work he put in the offseason, honing in on where the ball should go and what spot it should be placed in, it’s paying off because we’re seeing it in the games,” Frazier said. “He’s really improved in that area and we’re benefiting from his improvement. You’d just like to see it continue.”