MINNEAPOLIS — From the very first play of Friday’s third preseason game, the Minnesota Vikings’ offense couldn’t find the right timing and quarterback Christian Ponder looked more like the inconsistent 10-game starter from his rookie season last year than the confident captain of the offense he had shown through two preseason games.
On the first play from scrimmage, Ponder stepped back and fired a pass intended for receiver Percy Harvin over the middle. The pass was swatted by leaping San Diego defensive lineman Aubrayo Franklin, all 6-foot-1 and 317 pounds of him. Ponder’s second attempt on third-and-9 was misfired in the direction of receiver Michael Jenkins and Minnesota’s first-team offense went three-and-out for the first time this preseason.
All the progress Ponder and the Vikings’ offense had shown through two preseason games was gone, replaced by inaccuracy, mistakes and turnovers that resembled the struggling offense from a season ago in Minnesota’s 12-10 loss to the San Diego Chargers.
“We never really got a rhythm,” Ponder said. “When we get the ball first in a game, it’s always important for us to set a tone. Not only did we go three-and-out on the first drive, but on the second drive, as well. Start off with an incompletion right on the very first play and that set a tone for the rest of the game.”
After producing points on four of their five preseason series, the Vikings’ top offense sputtered playing a full half and one series into the third quarter in the “dress rehearsal” for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener. Ponder and the first-team offense managed just 158 yards in their nine series Friday. The tally included two first downs, three points on a 29-yard field goal by Blair Walsh and three turnovers.
Ponder, who had a 111.2 quarterback rating through two games, was 9 of 16 for 115 yards passing. He threw one interception and was sacked five times.
“I think some of it has to do that San Diego is a much-improved defense,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of the first-team offense. “They did a good job. We just didn’t execute very well. And when you are playing a good defense, you have to be able to execute some of the basic things we’ve worked on throughout training camp and the preseason. We didn’t do that very well tonight and we’ve got to figure out what we have to do to improve.
“But a combination of their being a better group and our lack of execution in certain areas, in particular turning the ball over and not knocking people off the ball in the run game.”
Minnesota’s star running back, Adrian Peterson, was again out of uniform as he continues his recovery from knee surgery and starting back Toby Gerhart had just six carries for 18 yards. Receiver Jerome Simpson, signed in the offseason to be an explosive second receiver with Harvin, didn’t play as the team prepares for his three-game suspension at the start of the regular season. And tight end John Carlson still hasn’t played in the preseason while dealing with a sprained medial collateral ligament.
However, the first-team offense didn’t look like the improved unit it had shown in the first two preseason games with Ponder more comfortable in his second year, an upgraded offensive line, new receivers and a second year in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s system.
“I think we’re a lot further along than we were last year, which is good,” Ponder said. “But we’ve still got a ton of things to work on, obviously after tonight. We’re making a lot of plays and we’re doing a lot of good things. We just got to keep progressing, get better at fundamentals and get better, again, on first and second down and keep the ball in our hands and things will work out.”
Five sacks of Ponder was also a bad sign for a line rebuilt with first-round rookie Matt Kalil at left tackle, Charlie Johnson at left guard, John Sullivan at center, Brandon Fusco at right guard and Phil Loadholt at right tackle. Kalil in particular struggled Friday, but Ponder believes the offensive line issues were on him.
So eager to leave the pocket as a rookie last season, Ponder has worked on trusting his offensive line and staying in the pocket. He stayed in the pocket on Friday, to his and the offensive line’s detriment.
“I think I got myself in trouble,” Ponder said. “I was getting back on the top of my drop and just kind of sitting there, and that puts a lot of pressure on our tackles. I’ve got to do a lot better job of stepping up and moving forward. It was tough with the 3-4. In the middle they were just kind of standing up and not really rushing hard, and I’ve got to do a better job of finding windows to find guys. That’s on me. I’ve got to get better in the pocket. And I usually don’t do that. I don’t know why it happened in this game. It’s something to work on in practice and get better at.”
Playing in reserve of Gerhart, running backs Lex Hilliard, Matt Asiata and Derrick Coleman each lost fumbles as part of Minnesota’s four total turnovers.
“Probably the things that defined it for us were the mistakes,” Frazier said.
Aside from the turnovers, the offense still wasn’t in synch. Ponder didn’t seem too worried though.
“I think that a lot of people were looking at this as a tell-tale sign of where we’re at,” Ponder said. “We still did well in the first two weeks and we can take a lot of positives out of that, and this game as well. We moved the ball well. We just shot ourselves in the foot at the wrong times. We’ll be ready for Week 1.”