Vikings-Packers III: Blitzing Ponder

Christian Ponder played the worst game of his career in a Week 13 loss to the Green Bay Packers. His Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) was 3.1 on a scale of 0-100.

Four weeks later, Ponder played arguably his best game in the Minnesota Vikings' 37-34 victory over the Packers. His QBR was 94.6.

So what happened? Other than the vagaries of pro sports, how do we explain the difference in Ponder's performances?

Ponder surely deserves credit for getting himself under control after the Lambeau Field disaster. Sunday was the culmination of a four-week trend that had him playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL, based on QBR analysis. But what role, if any, did the Packers play in Ponder's success -- particularly as a passer -- in last Sunday's game?

I asked John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information to help answer that question. The charts in this post contain some of what he came up with.

In short: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers heavily blitzed Ponder in Week 13 but pulled back, especially on third downs, last Sunday. Ponder smoked the Packers on third down in the re-match, and you wonder if Capers will head back in the other direction during Saturday night's wild-card playoff game.

The Packers blitzed Ponder on 60 percent of his dropbacks in the teams' first game, tied for the highest blitz percentage he faced this season. As the first chart shows, that figure increased to 75 percent on second and third downs. In the second game, the Packers' total blitz percentage dropped to 44 percent -- including 25 percent on third down.

The second chart shows Ponder was terrible on third down in the blitz-heavy first game and stellar when he mostly faced the Packers' standard rush in the second. Ponder had been steadily improving entering that Week 17 game, but you could argue the Packers made his job easier than it would have been if they had maintained their Week 13 approach.

We should make clear that game-planning and strategy is not this simple. The answer isn't necessarily to blitz Ponder more often on third down Saturday night. As outsiders, we're in a much better position to identify and discuss what happened than what should happen. But you now know what Capers understood on the short flight back to Green Bay last Sunday: That Ponder was near-perfect on the game's most important plays, and the circumstances surrounding that success were much different than those that contributed to his near-total failure just four weeks ago.

What Capers decides to do with that information is why people will buy tickets and watch Saturday night's game. The return of defensive back Charles Woodson brings back an important asset in Capers' bag of tricks. I'll be as interested as you to see his response.