Carolina Panthers star receiver Steve Smith knows a thing or two about breaking in a rookie quarterback, and he had a little bit of advice for the Vikings receivers who suddenly find themselves in the same boat in Minnesota.
“You have to over-communicate,” Smith said. “You have to walk through it.”
Talking has never been much of a problem for Smith, but while the Vikings’ receiver corps may not be quite as chatty as he is, they are still doing everything they can to make the transition as smooth as possible for their rookie signal-caller.
Christian Ponder is preparing to start the second game of his career when the Vikings (1-6) play at Carolina (2-5) on Sunday. After a promising but uneven debut in a 33-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers last weekend, he will need all the help he can to earn his first victory.
Ponder may have completed only 13 of his 32 passes against the Packers, but eight of those went for at least 12 yards, bringing a vertical element to the Vikings’ offense that had been sorely lacking with Donovan McNabb under center.
Ponder figured to make more progress this week in his second week of practice with the starting offense, working on timing and chemistry that he hadn’t been able to do when McNabb was getting all the practice time through the first six weeks.
“Usually you see a big jump, not only in individual players but teams, from the first game to the second game, so we’re hoping that he can apply some lessons he learned on Sunday evening in the Dome,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said.
He was thrown a bit of a curveball this week when the Vikings cut ties with veteran receiver Bernard Berrian. Unhappy with Berrian’s attitude and lack of production, coach Leslie Frazier showed him the door on Tuesday and called up seventh-round draft pick Stephen Burton from the practice squad.
With star slot receiver Percy Harvin continuing to be bothered by a rib injury, the receiver corps is in a state of flux.
That’s where communication becomes most important, according to Smith, who has been credited with helping No. 1 overall draft pick Cam Newton become a star so early in his career. And it’s not always about talking.
“A lot of guys are like, ‘I’m the veteran so I need to do all the talking,’” Smith said. “For me, how you last in this league and how you stay productive is not about how much information you can give people, it’s actually sometimes too how much new information you can sit and absorb. How much can you pay attention and watch.”
Musgrave has tailored the game plan to Ponder’s strengths, particularly throwing on the run outside of the pocket, and the receivers are figuring out that they can never give up on a route because of their quarterback’s ability to extend the play.
“After your route’s done, there’s that chance of the play staying alive and of you making a play,” said Michael Jenkins, who caught three passes for 111 yards against the Packers. “Just have to keep working to the whistle.”
It should come as no surprise that Ponder seems to have developed an early trust in veteran Greg Camarillo. Facing a third-and-long twice in their final two drives of the game, Ponder hit Camarillo for gains of 16 and 19 yards to keep the chains moving.
Camarillo was the only Vikings receiver on the 53-man roster to attend a workout with Ponder in Florida during the lockout, and the two connected often in practice while running the scout team earlier in the season.
“Hopefully we built some trust during that time and I know he’s a great quarterback and he showed it in scout team and hopefully he can continue to show that on the field,” Camarillo said.
Berrian’s dismissal gave Camarillo a new opportunity after he was inactive for three of the first four games. He didn’t record his first catch until the game at Chicago two weeks ago, which also marked Ponder’s first playing time in the regular season.
“Every week you come here on Wednesday and look at the depth chart and don’t see your name there, you can take it two ways,” Camarillo said. “You can shut it down or you can look at it and say I have to work harder. I’ve been trying to work hard and hopefully that will translate to more opportunities on the field.”