There was plenty to like about quarterback Christian Ponder's first NFL victory, but the word many people keep returning to is "poise." It's difficult to tell from Ponder's movement or body language whether a play is running perfectly or has totally broken down. There is also no discernible change in his blood pressure between a first-quarter series and a potential game-winning drive. I think that's why Ponder is having some early success in critical situations. Sunday, he completed nine of his 10 third-down attempts, converting seven into first downs. And in both of his NFL starts, he has led long fourth-quarter scoring drives. Sunday's game-winning drive took 7 minutes, 10 seconds off the clock, traveling 72 yards on 13 plays. At the start of his NFL career, Ponder has at least demonstrated the game isn't too big for him.
A couple of encouraging events occurred in the final few plays of the game. On a second-and-3 play from the Vikings' 14-yard line, safety Husain Abdullah got excellent position on Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to break up a pass in the end zone that would have given the Panthers a lead with 50 seconds remaining. It's rare and notable when you see a member of the Vikings' secondary make a play like that. Second, coach Leslie Frazier wisely called a timeout after the Panthers failed to make a first down one play later. If nothing else, Frazier bought his team about 30 seconds to get into position for a winning field goal and avoid overtime if Olindo Mare had converted a 31-yard field goal. It's worth noting that Frazier missed an opportunity to save his offense some time in a similar situation last month against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Live and learn, right?
Somehow the Vikings survived against the Panthers' offense with cornerback Asher Allen locked in single coverage against receiver Steve Smith for a good portion of the game. Allen, a third-round draft pick in 2009, opened the season as the Vikings' dime back but has started the past two weeks because of Antoine Winfield's neck injury and Chris Cook's suspension. Allen has made some progress since his rookie season but wouldn't be the first choice of many people to match up with Smith, who caught seven passes for 100 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown. It's notable the Vikings tapped Allen for that role and not veteran Cedric Griffin, who is gamely trying to play on a pair of surgically repaired knees.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Did you have Marcus Sherels atop your list as the Vikings' surprise young player of the first half? I can't say I did. In winning the punt return job, and now assuming the kickoff return role while Percy Harvin and Lorenzo Booker nurse injuries, Sherels has proved to be a shifty and aggressive open-field runner. His 78-yard kickoff return Sunday didn't directly lead to a score but helped flip field position early in the Vikings' favor. Sherels ranks No. 13 in the NFL with an average punt return of 10.6 yards, including a 53-yard scamper in Week 3 against the Detroit Lions. The Vikings don't have a roster spot dedicated for a return specialist, so Sherels is making the most of his opportunity thus far.