MINNEAPOLIS -- Of all the numbers used to measure Christian Ponder's first start of the 2013 season, this one, from ESPN Stats and Information, stuck out the most to me. And judging by the reaction I've seen from all of you on Twitter, there's plenty of interest in it. So let's explore it a little further:
Ponder saw eight men in the box on 21 percent of his dropbacks on Sunday, or more than five times more often than the rest of the league saw that look (the league average was 4 percent). He went 3-for-6 against eight-man fronts, throwing for 68 yards but firing two of his three interceptions -- including the ill-advised lob he threw to Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch in the second quarter -- against such defenses. As a result, Ponder's Quarterback Rating for the day against eight men in the box was 0.5; the league average was 51.1.
Why is this so important? First, eight men in the box means in most cases, the quarterback will have plenty of room to throw the ball if he gets rid of it in time. The defense is either designed to stop the run or put pressure on the quarterback, but against the best quarterbacks, it's rarely used. Because elite passers shred it.
From 2008 to 2012, the league's top five passers against eight-man fronts are, in order: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Matt Schaub. Those are the names you'd expect to see at the top of most lists, but all except Brees have higher QBRs against eight-man fronts than they do when facing six or fewer defenders in the box. If a quarterback can make a quick decision and a sharp throw against an eight-man front, he'll often find a receiver in single coverage or space in the middle of the field against one high safety. Rodgers, in fact, has developed such a reputation for beating blitzes that defenses have decided to stay back and take away his chances to go over the top; he didn't drop back a single eight-man front on Sunday against the 49ers, and faced it on just 18 dropbacks last year.
Ponder, on the other hand, dropped back 59 times against it last season. That was 22 more times than anyone in football saw it, and the Lions used it even more often on Sunday than Ponder saw it on average last year. Teams are doing it to stop Adrian Peterson first and foremost, but in the process, they're daring Ponder to make a quick decision and burn them. Essentially, defenses are more willing to give Ponder open space down the field than any quarterback in football. Again, that's mostly because Peterson is the primary concern. But if Ponder could take advantage of how much he sees that defense, he'd have better numbers, Peterson would get less attention, and the Vikings would be better for it as a whole.
Let's close by looking at what happened the one time the Vikings had a Pro Bowl quarterback sharing the backfield with Peterson: Brett Favre dropped back against eight-man fronts 55 times in 2009, and while he hit more checkdowns than deep shots (he averaged 4.98 yards per attempt), he threw nine touchdowns against no interceptions. His QBR against that look in 2009 was 63.3 -- not spectacular, but still 12th-best in the league.
Ponder has proven before he can beat loaded fronts. His longest, and possibly his best, pass of the 2012 season -- a 65-yarder to Jarius Wright with the score tied in the fourth quarter of a do-or-die game against the Packers -- came against eight in the box. But until he can find consistent success against the defense, he'll be missing out on possibly the best opportunity Peterson provides him for NFL success.