MINNEAPOLIS — Christian Ponder spent the offseason studying tape of his inconsistent rookie season, intent on using the missed plays a season ago to aid his development entering his first full season as the Minnesota Vikings starting quarterback.
The work seems to have paid off, and Ponder is still using missed opportunities as a way to get better.
Ponder was 10 for 13 passing on Friday for 136 yards and a touchdown, tallying a 135.4 quarterback rating, in helping lead Minnesota to a 36-14 win against the Buffalo Bills in the second preseason game of the season. Even in victory, posting one of his most efficient performances as a pro, Ponder was still thinking about missed plays when he met with the media after the game.
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“There’s two plays that I wish I had back, but the offense is clicking and doing really well,” Ponder said. “We’re putting up points and that’s a good thing to do. There’s still some plays that we’ve got to get fixed and get better at, but it’s a good starting point.”
Through five series, the first-team offense with Ponder at the helm has driven into scoring position each time. The only non-scoring drive for the starters was in the second quarter Friday when rookie kicker Blair Walsh missed a 49-yard field goal.
In two preseason games, Ponder is a combined 14 for 22 for 216 yards and a touchdown, and just as importantly hasn’t had a turnover after a rookie season in which he completed 54.3 percent of his passes while throwing 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
“Everyone’s so much more comfortable and confident in what they’re doing,” Ponder said. “Especially at the quarterback position, we’ve done such a great job during the OTAs and offseason, I know where I want to go with the ball pre-snap and the receivers are doing a great job of getting open. The line’s doing a great job of blocking where I can get to that third or fourth read. Things are just going well.”
The Vikings have put their faith in Ponder, the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, believing he would develop after an up-and-down rookie season in which he was behind from the beginning following the lockout. He was then pressed into action earlier than hoped when Donovan McNabb struggled in his brief time in Minnesota. Ponder ended up starting the final 10 games of the season and the mistakes compounded as the season wore on.
But with a full offseason to spend in the playbook, studying the game film from last year and working side-by-side with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson, Ponder has seemed more at ease as the Vikings’ starter.
Friday’s game, the first in Minnesota for the Vikings since the 2011 season finale when Ponder left in the first half with an injury, gave the second-year quarterback a chance for a sweet return.
Ponder was 3 for 3 on the opening drive of the game and put Minnesota into the end zone for the first time this preseason with a 1-yard touchdown pass in the flat to fullback Jerome Felton, the play after scrambling and diving head first for a first down on a 3-and-2 play from the 4-yard line.
“Christian did an awesome job in there,” receiver Jerome Simpson said. “He was so poised and I’m so proud of him. He just took leaps and bounds this game. He’s just coming to be one of those elite quarterbacks and I seen it in him today.”
Ponder completed passes to eight different receivers, including three to Simpson. He was sacked twice in the span of three plays on the opening drive, but stayed in the pocket and found receivers when needed. All three of his completions on the first drive went for at least 16 yards. Percy Harvin turned a short pass into a 21-yard gain.
Simpson caught a quick slant and showed off his unique athleticism, leaping over Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd on the way to a 33-yard catch and run. Running back Toby Gerhart also had a 16-yard reception.
“My job’s easy right now,” Ponder said. “When guys like Percy Harvin, Jerome Simpson make a 4-yard catch and turn it into a 50-yard gain, it’s unbelievable. The offensive line did such a great job. We’re spreading the ball around like crazy and we’re making plays. I’m very excited with where we are right now after this game.”
Ponder probably isn’t the only one in Minnesota excited.