Ponder's deep ball key for Vikings

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Which Christian Ponder will show up this weekend: the Week 13 or Week 17 version?The Minnesota Vikings took a 14-10 lead into the third quarter against the Green Bay Packers in Week 13 and started the half with possession of the ball. Adrian Peterson quickly got the Vikings into the red zone after two rushes totaling 52 yards.

Facing 2nd-and-6 at the 8-yard line, the Vikings used play action and rolled Christian Ponder to the right. Ponder was under duress and forced a throw into the end zone: interception.

Later in the third quarter, now trailing by six, the Vikings were once again deep in Packers territory after a 23-yard Peterson run and 15-yard penalty. Once again a Ponder interception, this time at the Packers’ 10-yard line, ended a drive.

Although Peterson rushed for a combined 409 yards against the Packers this season, including 210 yards on 21 rushes in that Week 13 matchup, the fate of the Vikings may ultimately lie in the hands of their sophomore quarterback.

The difference in the Week 13 loss and the Week 17 victory for the Vikings was the play of Ponder, whose 3.1 Total QBR in Week 13 was the worst against the Packers this season, and whose 94.6 QBR in Week 17 was the best performance by a quarterback vs Green Bay in 2012.

Christian Ponder Passing
15+ Yds Downfield, Career vs Packers

Two factors contributed to Ponder’s ups and downs in those games: vertical passing and third downs.

Ponder attempted six passes thrown 15 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage in Week 13. The only one that was caught was an interception by the Packers.

In Week 17, however, Ponder was 4-of-5 on such throws, including a 25-yard pass to Michael Jenkins on the final drive that put Minnesota into Packers territory.

Ponder has completed 36.9 percent of those downfield throws in his career, far worse than the league average of 42.3 percent.

He has struggled even more in Green Bay, going 3-of-14 with two interceptions in two games. The difference in his performance on deep throws against the Packers on the road compared to at home is stark, as show in the chart on the right.

Christian Ponder on 3rd Down vs Packers
By No. of Pass Rushers This Season

The other key for Ponder will be his passing on third down. Ponder was 2-of-7 with two first downs in Week 13 on third down, compared to 8-of-11 passing with six first downs in Week 17.

The improvement was in large part due to a change in defensive strategy against Ponder.

In Week 13, the Packers sent five or more pass rushers after Ponder on 75 percent of his third down dropbacks.

In Week 17 the Packers did the reverse, sending added pressure only one-quarter of the time. Ponder picked apart the Packers secondary when seeing standard pressure but struggled against Green Bay’s blitz on third down.

Peterson is a good bet to run through the Packers defensive front, having already totaled 409 yards rushing against Green Bay this season. But if Ponder is unable to replicate his Week 17 success, Peterson’s yardage in the this weekend might not matter.