Christian Ponder (Grant Halverson/Getty)
The Vikings are trying to get Christian Ponder prepared for his first NFL start as quickly as possible. The challenge is big since Donovan McNabb had been taking the vast majority of snaps in practice since the regular season began. Plus, a look at the injury report, the desire to stick with the Blazer, trying to get to Aaron Rodgers, odds on Ponder’s performance and more.
Vikings coaches are in hurry-up mode trying to prepare rookie quarterback Christian Ponder for his first start Sunday against an aggressive Green Bay Packers defense.
With veteran Donovan McNabb new to Minnesota’s offense, the 13-year veteran of the NFL got the vast majority of snaps ever since he arrived in Mankato for the start of training camp. Now, with a change in the starter in which head coach Leslie Frazier said there is “no wavering,” coaches are going into overtime to try to find what works for Ponder.
“(Ponder) wasn’t getting a lot (of snaps) because we wanted to make sure Donovan was up to speed on limited preparation coming in there in Mankato,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “Donovan got the majority of them and Christian would get sprinkled in there at times when we felt a concept was down pat with Donovan.”
Musgrave said some starters get 100 percent of the snaps once the regular season begins. Others get 70 to 80 percent.
“With Christian, we’re going to try to give him as many as we can to make up for lost time. As we move through the season, we may try to scale that back just to try to keep his legs and arm fresh as you prepare for each Sunday,” Musgrave said.
Coaches are “burning the midnight oil” to find the plays that work best for Ponder, Musgrave said, but their research goes back to training camp because his practice reps in the first six weeks of the regular season were so limited.
“We’ve tried to cater to where he is, but at the same time not dummy it down to the point where we can’t function and do what we need to do to score points on Sunday,” Frazier said. “This is a very good defense. You can’t just be vanilla against Green Bay.”
All of the quarterback are allowed to give their input on plays they feel comfortable with to help shape the scripted plays for Musgrave at the beginning of the game, but there is one caveat.
“I always tell those guys, they have input but I have veto power,” Musgrave said.
STILL BULLISH ON THE BLAZER
The insertion of Ponder as the starter won’t have an effect on the Vikings’ desire to use Joe Webb in their “Blazer” package at times. Musgrave said they will try to insert the Blazer at some point every week, despite the limited success they have experienced with it to this point.
“We’re not satisfied with very much at this stage, especially after you get it handed to you like we did on Sunday night,” Musgrave said. “We want to get back on track where we felt we were making progress each and every week, but in greater increments. When Joe is on the field, we want to get more juice out of it. We’ll keep trying to put him in positions so we can do that.”
Last week, Webb was inserted into the game on the fourth drive for two plays. He handed the ball off to Adrian Peterson for a 4-yard gain, overthrew Percy Harvin on second down, and then McNabb came back in to convert third-and-6 with an 11-yard completion to Harvin.
HARVIN, LOADHOLT BACK TO LIMITED
Receiver Percy Harvin (ribs) and tackle Phil Loadholt (knee) returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday after sitting out on Wednesday.
Loadholt said his knee injury occurred in the first quarter, but he continued to play until halftime, when it stiffened up on him. He said he plans on playing Sunday to help protect Ponder in his first NFL start.
“You’ve got to get the job done. Especially with him being young, you want to make him feel as comfortable as possible,” Loadholt said.
CB Antoine Winfield (neck) and LBs E.J. Henderson (knee) and Kenny Onatolu (hamstring) remained limited for the second straight day. Frazier said he hopes to see Winfield do more in Friday’s practice, but without contact in practice it’s harder to gauge the readiness of a stiff neck for an NFL game.
“Today we had him actually hit the sled to try to get some contact that way – because we really don’t want him being taken to the ground – just to have him feel contact and that reverberation to see how he would respond and it was positive,” Frazier said. “It’s a lot different when you’re talking about the neck.”
Safety Jamarca Sanford and center John Sullivan remained sidelined for practice with concussions and Frazier said they will probably be listed as doubtful. They are both undergoing post-concussion protocol tests administered by a third-party doctor.
“There are different procedures that are done,” Frazier said. “… Each day they’ve had protocols they’ve had to go through to see how they responded. The fact that they aren’t out here tells you we haven’t got to the point where we could clear them yet.”
RODGERS ON FIRE
After spending last Sunday night trying to get around Chicago’s seven- and eight-man protection schemes, the Vikings are preparing for the quick release of Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers.
“He’s on fire right now. He’s having a hell of a year. He’s matured into a great football player. We’re going to have to put in our best effort against him and try to control what he does and get after him,” Vikings defensive coordinator Fred Pagac said.
“He gets the ball off. He has great vision. He knows defenses. He understands pressure situations. He knows his hot reads, sight reads, things of that nature. He’s playing well right now. He’s a great football player.”
The Packers’ use of three- and four-receiver sets will put a premium on the Vikings’ defensive backs, and there are a few questions there. While Winfield returned to practice on a limited basis this week as he recovers from his neck injury, Cedric Griffin struggled with coverage against Chicago as he continues to make his way back from surgeries to repair his anterior cruciate ligaments over the last two years.
“Cedric will tell you that he wants to improve, get more consistent. Whether that’s a physical situation because of the knee or not, I don’t know that,” Pagac said.
Ponder’s ability to run is an asset if used wisely, but the Vikings hope is smart about it. “If you saw any of his film at Florida State, he was a fearless runner – fearless – which is an attribute, but at this level with guys playing defense you’ve got to be smart otherwise you won’t stay upright, you won’t stay in the league very long health-wise,” Musgrave said. “He’s got that sixth sense, but we’ve also got to have him exude judgment late in the down when defenders are bearing down on him.”
The Vikings have been piping in noise with big speakers at their practices this week. It’s a home game, so are they preparing for an abundance of Packers fans? “Packer fans in our stadium? Oh, man. I hope we do things as a team where you only hear Vikings fans,” Frazier said.
With Ponder making his first start, the Vikings will announce the offensive starters before the game.
If Sanford is unable to play, former starter Tyrell Johnson will get the start. “If he is the starter this week, we’re going to expect him to play at a high level and go from there,” Pagac said.
The gambling web site Bodog.net has released its over/under odds for Ponder’s starting debut at 200½ yards, one touchdown pass and half an interception.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.