Ponder shows playmaking ability over Niners
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Christian Ponder stepped up in the pocket and saw the running room ahead of him in the middle of the usually stout San Francisco defense.
Ponder, the Minnesota Vikings' surging second-year starting quarterback, had already seen his first two passing options covered. He decided to take off with the end zone in sight. The goal line seemed farther away to Ponder than the 23 yards it was, but he made one final lunge and scored the first rushing touchdown of his career.
"It was kind of a two-man route and they took away both of them, and it was man coverage," Ponder said. "Just kind of felt the lane and just ran. 'Run Forrest run.'"
Ponder didn't need any signs Sunday to show him where to go.
Fitting that on a day whn Ponder did so much with his arm, his legs were the ones that had the San Francisco defense worried. Ponder had perhaps his best game in his two pro seasons and led Minnesota (2-1) to its biggest win since it made the NFC Championship Game in 2009 by passing for two touchdowns and running for another to knock off the previously undefeated 49ers 24-13.
Ponder finished 21 of 35 passing for 198 yards and added 33 yards on seven rushes. He also went turnover-free -- the problem that plagued him during rookie season last year -- and came up his biggest against the best defense he's faced in his short time as an NFL starter.
"I don't know; I guess," Ponder said when asked if it was his best game as a pro. "That's what people will say. I think it's the biggest win, for sure, against a very good opponent. But again, it makes it easier when guys around me are making plays. I think the biggest thing for us is we didn't shoot ourselves in the foot today. We had one penalty and that was the difference between this week and last week. But as a team we're very close and we're getting better. For me, I've just got to progress each week."
Ponder has been doing just that.
Pressed into action earlier than expected last season, Ponder completed just 54.3 percent of his passes, had 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and had a 70.1 quarterback rating. He also lost two fumbles.
But Ponder and the Vikings have talked about his progress all offseason, and it has shown in three regular-season games. He entered Sunday with the best completion percentage in the NFL and had registered a quarterback rating more than 100 the first two weeks. He fell short of the mark Sunday with a 94.7 rating, but his game might not have completely been demonstrated by the numbers. His elusiveness and control of the Minnesota offense was big part of Sunday's win.
"I thought from a decision-making standpoint it may have been his best game," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He did a lot of good things on the move, but even in the pocket. I know there was one occasion where they were barreling down on him and there were times in the past where he might have held on to the ball a little longer and taken a sack. But he ended up throwing the ball out of bounds, and I said on the headset, 'Man, he's growing up. He's getting it.'"
He avoided an oncoming safety on a naked bootleg to find tight end Kyle Rudolph in the back of the end zone for a touchdown pass on the opening drive. He deftly moved away from the pocket as well, avoiding sacks against San Francisco's defense.
"He just showed another aspect for other teams to get used to, that he can run with the ball a little bit," 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman said.
San Francisco had held Green Bay Packers' MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers somewhat in check in during a season-opening win before frustrating Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford last week in a game where Stafford completed only 19 of 32 passes and a 78.9 quarterback rating.
The defense also hadn't allowed a rushing touchdown this season -- and three total last season -- until Ponder's scramble.
"It was huge for this team, and I know for him it was a huge accomplishment to go against, probably, I know last year they were the best defense in the league by far," receiver Percy Harvin said. "To go out there and have a complete game, he threw two, ran one, and no interceptions, his confidence should be high right now."
Ponder's confidence doesn't seem to be an issue, though he certainly has reason to be riding high.
He has lost two fumbles on sacks, but he hasn't thrown an interception this season. He has connected on 70.1 percent of his throws, has played to a 104.9 quarterback rating, and has four touchdowns passing to go with his rushing score.
Ponder has the belief and confidence of his teammates. A few more outings like Sunday, and neither Ponder nor the Vikings might be a surprise any more.
"It's big obviously," Ponder said of the win. "I think more for people outside this organization than us. We're already confident in what we can do. I think we're just going to show people outside what kind of team we have...This is the third game and we haven't won the Super Bowl. There's 13 games left and we're not declaring ourselves champions of anything."
But having a quarterback who can make plays with his arm, or feet, is a good start.
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