Rib injury sidelines Ponder, Cassel to start vs. Steelers

BY foxsports • September 27, 2013

The Minnesota Vikings are going with a new quarterback on Sunday after all.

But the Christian Ponder era isn't necessarily over. Coach Leslie Frazier announced Matt Cassel will start Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers because Ponder is dealing with a fractured rib.

"Just felt like from a medical standpoint it was too risky to put him out there and take a hit to not know what the possibilities might be after taking a hit to the rib," Frazier said after the team finished practice Friday. "He's a tough, tough guy but probably wouldn't be wise to put him in that situation. We have complete confidence that Matt will do a good job. Our players are going to support him and he'll be the guy leading us to victory on Sunday evening."

Frazier also declared cornerback Chris Cook (groin) and safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring), two starting members of the secondary, out for Sunday. Tight end Rhett Ellison (knee) will miss his second straight game. Cornerback A.J. Jefferson (ankle) is listed as probable after practicing fully Friday.

Cassel, 31, was signed in the offseason for such circumstances, giving Minnesota a veteran, experienced backup behind Ponder. Cassel started much of the past four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and is perhaps most remembered for replacing an injured Tom Brady in his final season with the New England Patriots.

"I've been through it a lot, but at the same time, you still get those butterflies and everything," Cassel said. "I just found out this morning right before practice. At the same time, I've been preparing for this. I feel like I'm ready to go."

Cassel was released as Kansas City made changes across the board this offseason with new coach Andy Reid, who added quarterback Alex Smith. Cassel signed a two-year deal a few days later with the Vikings, though he does have the option to become a free agent again after this season.

Like Ponder in his third season in Minnesota, Cassel was much maligned the last two years with the Chiefs and eventually lost his starting job last season when he had a 66.7 quarterback rating with a 58.1 percent completion percentage and six touchdowns to 12 interceptions.

However, he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010 when he threw for 3,116 yards, 27 touchdowns, seven interceptions and had a career-best 93.0 quarterback rating.

"His veteran presence, you feel it," Frazier said. "For the guys, there was no shock this week because he got more and more reps. So, I think they'll handle it the right way."

In his last two seasons in Kansas City, Cassel had 21 interceptions in 18 games and knows ball security is at a premium Sunday in London's Wembley Stadium against Pittsburgh. Minnesota is tied for second in the league with 10 takeaways, but also ranks second in the NFL with 10 turnovers offensively.

"It's win the ballgame first and foremost, whatever it takes," Cassel said. "For us, it's really a one-game season. We've got to go in and play good football. I've got to take care of the ball. We've got to take care of the ball and then we've got to execute, and then whoever does that and plays good situational football will win this game on Sunday."

Cassel said he isn't looking to Sunday's game as a chance to earn the full-time starting role. Ponder ranks 30th in the NFL in quarterback rating and has thrown two touchdowns to five interceptions. He's also lost two fumbles.

Frazier doesn't see a possible quarterback controversy arising, regardless of how Cassel plays Sunday.

"I'm hoping that he shines," Frazier said. "I don't foresee a quarterback controversy, but we want him to play lights out. We want him to have the best game of his NFL career on Sunday."

Ponder told reporters in London Friday that his fractured rib is near his heart, which adds to the concern if he was able to take a hit. He was injured in last week's loss, but played through the pain. He was limited in practices on Wednesday and Thursday and was fitted with protective gear, but was held out completely on Friday.

"He's a competitive guy," Frazier said. "It was tough for him to get the news that we're going to start Matt. But he also understands from a health standpoint, it's probably the wise thing to do and the fact that we have a bye coming up gives him a little bit more time to heal. So, he understands that part of it."

The other quarterback on Minnesota's roster is McLeod Bethel-Thompson, a second-year player out of Sacramento State who has yet to throw a pass in a regular-season NFL game.


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