For Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder and Green Bay strong safety Morgan Burnett, the Florida State-Georgia Tech rivalry will extend beyond Saturday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Ponder was an FSU quarterback when he first faced Burnett and the Yellow Jackets in 2008. The two will meet again during the FOX America’s Game of the Week between the Vikings and host Packers (1 p.m. ET Sunday).
“He was probably their best player at the time,” said Ponder, who started 34 career games for the Seminoles. “He really impressed me and stood out then. He’s got good instincts. He’s always around the ball.”
Burnett also was effusive in his praise of Ponder.
“He has a strong arm and is capable of making all the throws,” Burnett told FOXSports.com in a Thursday telephone interview. “Another thing that’s big about him is he’s very athletic with his feet and is able to extend plays. You have to stick with your coverage a little longer than usual.”
Ponder and Burnett are looking for any edge they can get against the other from past experience as both try to help their respective team rebound from disappointing performances.
Ponder was sacked on the first play of last Sunday’s 28-10 loss to Chicago, which was an apropos start to the offensive nightmare that followed. The Vikings had almost as many turnovers by halftime (two) as first downs (three) in falling behind by 18 points.
"It was frustrating,” Ponder told FOXSports.com. “First, it’s hard to overcome turnovers. We didn’t execute the way we were supposed to.
“At the same time, it gives you the confidence that it’s not really what the defense was doing. It was more us hurting ourselves. Obviously, Chicago had a great defense and did make plays. But a lot of times, it was just us falling short of the plays we were supposed to make. Knowing how big this (Packers) game is, we have to get those things corrected pretty quickly.”
The Packers are in the same boat following a 38-10 road loss to the New York Giants. Eli Manning dissected Green Bay’s secondary for three touchdowns without an interception while averaging a gaudy 15.6 yards on his 16 completions.
The recent absence of outside linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) has greatly tempered Green Bay’s pass rush. But the Packers’ secondary also suffered a significant blow when strong safety Charles Woodson suffered a broken collarbone in mid-October against St. Louis.
Woodson is expected back soon. Until then, Burnett will continue to start in Woodson’s stead with rookie M.D. Jennings getting the nod at free safety.
"My role really hasn’t changed much,” said Burnett, who is second on the Packers in tackles with 86. “In training camp, (secondary) coach Darren Perry did a great job rotating us between different positions whether strong or free (safety). You have to learn both because one motion or formation could change you from free to strong.”
A 2010 third-round draft choice, Burnett became an immediate starter but spent the final 12 games on injured reserve with a knee injury. Burnett returned to start 16 games in 2011. In terms of seniority among the safeties, Burnett ranks only behind the 36-year-old Woodson as the senior safety on Green Bay’s roster.
Burnett, 23, said he benefited from a full offseason workout program after last year’s sessions were canceled by NFL labor strife.
“It gave me an opportunity to understand the defense more and my role in the safety position,” Burnett said.
Ponder also has come a long way since the last time he faced the Packers in his third NFL start. The Vikings couldn’t get anything going offensively in a 45-7 loss.
“The game has definitely slowed down for me,” Ponder told FOXSports.com. “I feel a lot more comfortable and more knowledgeable of this offense. I’m able to run things differently at the line of scrimmage and just feel like I have progressed a lot at making better decisions and being smarter with the ball than I was last year. Hopefully, that translates to some more success against them.”
Ponder will need to ply that knowledge against a Packers defense that will require some pre-snap dissecting.
“They played more man coverage against us before. They brought a lot of pressure,” said Ponder, referring to his two starts last season against the Packers. “This year, they brought a lot of pressure against San Francisco and St. Louis and didn’t bring pressure against Detroit. You can tell they’re game-planning and different things so it’s hard to tell schematically if they’re doing things for personnel or more for who they’re playing.”
There is one thing for certain: Whoever wins between Ponder and Burnett on Sunday will retain personal bragging rights no matter how the ACC title game unfolds.