GREEN BAY – Christian Ponder says he’s expecting the Green Bay Packers to throw the kitchen sink at him Sunday when he makes his first NFL start.
“As you know, Green Bay will probably bring a lot of pressure,” Ponder told Twin Cities reporters at his first news conference as the Minnesota Vikings’ new starting quarterback. “But I am definitely comfortable and confident. … It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s not too different from things we have seen before.”
But in truth, the Vikings rookie first-round draft pick might see just the opposite.
Ponder will be the fourth rookie quarterback the Packers have faced since defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ arrival in 2009, having gone up against Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford in ’09 and Carolina’s Cam Newton this year. And if Capers’ first three games against rookies are any indication, he may opt to drop more defenders in coverage and see if Ponder can find open receivers against a three-man or four-man rush.
“Every game is different,” Capers said slyly. “You’re talking about a young guy that obviously has good ability or he wouldn’t have been picked where he was.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers dialed back their blitzing against rookie QBs. In those three games, Capers sent five or more rushers 30.7 percent of the time, compared to 36.7 percent of the time against non-rookies. The Packers also blitzed defensive backs less often, sending a DB just 14.6 percent of the time against rookies compared to 19.9 percent against non-rookies.
For reference, ESPN Stats & Info has Capers blitzing on roughly 40 percent of opposing quarterbacks’ drop-backs in the first six games of the season, including the Week 2 win at Carolina over Newton.
“I don’t know how Dom’s going to want to call the game, but traditionally, when you face a new quarterback, the thing is to just blitz ‘em, blitz ‘em, blitz ‘em,” Packers safety Charlie Peprah said Thursday. “But we may not do that with this quarterback. You’ve got to be careful. You don’t want to blitz him too much, you don’t want to stay back in coverage too much. I don’t know what Dom’s game plan is going to be, but we’re not going to underestimate him. He’s going to get our full-on effort.”
Freeman was making his first NFL start when the Buccaneers upset the heavily-favored Packers, 38-28, at Raymond James Stadium. He completed 14 of 31 passes for 205 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions (86.1 rating). Capers actually blitzed Freeman the most, sending five or more rushers 41.2 percent of the time.
When the Packers faced Stafford three weeks later, that number plummeted. .
Stafford, who had missed the Lions’ first meeting with the Packers that year, was in his ninth NFL start but was coming back from a serious shoulder injury suffered a week earlier when he started at home on Thanksgiving against the Packers in what turned out to be a 34-12 Lions loss at Ford Field. Stafford completed 20 of 43 passes for 213 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions (30.5 rating). That day, Capers sent five or more rushers just 27.1 percent of the time.
Newton, this year’s No. 1 overall pick, was making his second NFL start when the Packers beat the Panthers, 30-23, at Bank of America Stadium on Sept. 18. Newton was 28 of 46 for 432 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions (72.0 rating). Capers blitzed him on 27.3 percent of his drop-backs, although Newton’s ability to scramble and run might have been a factor, too.
What’s interesting with the Vikings’ decision to start Ponder is that the guy he’s replacing, veteran Donovan McNabb, actually has had a lot of success against the Packers (5-2 record with Philadelphia and Washington). Nonetheless, coach Leslie Frazier said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters this week that he feels good about the decision, which he said is for the duration of the season, not just one game.
“Just looking at where our team is and what we’re trying to accomplish, I just felt like it was time to make that decision,” said Frazier, who benched McNabb late in the Vikings’ 39-10 loss at Chicago last Sunday night. “There was a lot of things that went into the decision, not just the Chicago game, but also some things that had happened in the previous five games along with what happened in the Chicago game. When he did get in to play in that limited time that he played, he did some good things that just made it clear to me that the game wasn’t too big for him. The speed of the game didn’t scare him. And I’d seen some things in practice to let me know that he was close to being ready to get in there. That was a part of it, along with what has transpired over the beginning of the season.”
Ponder, who completed 9 of 17 passes for 99 yards and a 70.5 rating against the Bears, also could give the 1-5 Vikings a much-needed emotional lift against the 6-0 Packers, who are favored by 9.5 points Sunday. Then again, the former Florida State standout, whom the Vikings selected with the No. 12 overall pick in the NFL Draft this spring, is walking into one of those situations where rookies often struggle – playing in his first season on a struggling team.
“It’s a tough challenge,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who sat behind Brett Favre for his first three NFL seasons, said on his weekly radio show on ESPNMilwaukee and ESPNMadison. “I could have played as a rookie, but I don’t know about being successful. It’s tough when you’re in a situation where the expectations on your shoulders are far greater than the potential in your locker room. One person has never won a game in this league. I don’t care what kind of game it is or what kind of player he is. Rookie, veteran, anybody. It takes a group of men playing well, guided well by their coaching staff to be successful.
“When you’re asked to do more than you really should be asked to do, and you’re in a situation when you’re surrounded by a lot of guys who maybe aren’t the most talented guys, it’s going to be tough to have success. And the expectations and the pressure of making up for the lack of talent in certain areas, I think it’s been tough on a lot of quarterbacks. And the worst thing a quarterback can lose is their confidence. If a quarterback loses that confidence, it’s tough to get it back.”
Ponder does have one thing going for him: The presence of Vikings All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, who enters the game having rushed for 537 yards and seven touchdowns on 122 carries (4.4-yard average) this season. He’s rushed for 320 yards and six touchdowns in his three games at home at Mall of America Field this season; 217 yards and one touchdown on the road.
Because of Peterson’s ability to break long runs if the Packers get caught in a blitz, Capers may have another reason to dial back the pressure on Ponder. In his four games against a Capers-coordinated Packers defense, Peterson has had mixed results.
“Any time it becomes (a game) where you have to defend both phases, it affects how much of the zone blitz that you call, or how much blitz that you call,” Capers explained. “In terms of getting after the quarterback, the best way to protect the quarterback is to keep the defense off balance where you don’t know what they’re going to do. If you play against a good runner that all of a sudden you get too blitz-happy, you’re opening up some of those seams and now they can turn those into big runs. We didn’t have a long run really against us yesterday, but we missed a couple tackles. I thought for the most part with a guy like Jackson…he has those kind of (big play) capabilities.
In the Packers’ two victories last season, Peterson rushed 28 times for 131 yards and a touchdown in the Packers’ 28-24 victory in Green Bay and 14 times for 72 yards and no TDs in the Packers’ 31-3 win at the Metrodome. In the Vikings’ two Favre-fueled victories in 2009, Peterson had 25 carries for 55 yards and a TD in the Vikings’ 30-23 triumph in Minneapolis and 25 carries for 97 yards and a TD in their 38-26 win at Green Bay.
So while Ponder’s first start is the storyline, for the Packers defense, stopping Peterson is the bottom line.
“I think my primary concern, even if Ponder wasn’t the quarterback, is to stop (No.) 28,” defensive end B.J. Raji said. “Obviously it’s no secret, this will be Ponder’s first start – that means no experience. But our main concern is Adrian Peterson.
“Young quarterback, any quarterback. Anytime you have Adrian Peterson as your running back, he has to be the focal point.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.