Christian Ponder, the Minnesota Vikings' first-round pick in 2011, has made an impressive leap forward in his second NFL season. After a difficult rookie campaign in which he compiled a 70.1 passer rating and the Vikings went 2-8 in his starts, Ponder has helmed his crew to a 5-2 start while vastly improving all of his passing numbers in 2012. The former Florida State star is completing 67.5% of his passes, has a 9-6 TD-INT ratio and has upped his passer rating to a respectable 87.5.
Ponder's decision-making has been significantly improved in his second season, according to Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier, and that's reflected in many of his raw numbers. He has minimized his mistakes and played particularly well in the red zone (100.1 passer rating) for instance. Ponder hasn't yet developed into a downfield threat – his 6.6 yards per pass attempt is 28th in the NFL – but he thinks he might have an opportunity to take care of that this very week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"They're very aggressive, so with double-moves and stuff they try to bite on stuff and try to guess," said Ponder of the Bucs' 2012 defense. "But they can also make plays that way. They're a very good defense. I think it's going to be one of the better defenses we face, especially with how aggressive they play. If you're going to take chances trying to undercut a route, you're also going to take chances of giving up a big play."
Ponder's observations in advance of the Thursday night matchup between the Bucs and Vikings in Minneapolis weren't in any way taunting, an even Tampa Bay Head Coach Greg Schiano pointed to the big passing play as an issue his team needs to address. Overall, Ponder said he has come away impressed with a short week of film study on the Buccaneers' new-look defense.
"They know how to get to the quarterback," said Ponder. "[Michael] Bennett is a guy that's very quick, and obviously [Gerald] McCoy is a guy they drafted really high a couple years ago. We know they can get to the quarterback and it's going to be a challenge for us up front to keep them out of the pocket and give me time to throw the ball. We expect their front seven to get back there and it's going to be my job to get the ball out quick and not let the pressure effect me."
In retrospect, it's not too much of a surprise that Ponder would take a sizeable leap forward after his rookie season, given that the NFL's labor impasse of 2011 robbed him from months of work with the Vikings coaching staff. Ponder was thrown in cold – he was the Vikings' starter by the sixth game of the season after Donovan McNabb proved ineffective – and he took his lumps. Things are different this year.
"I think he's really matured as a quarterback," said Frazier. "He's progressed at about the pace we thought he would and a lot of it has to do with his offseason. We're all familiar with the fact that he didn't have an offseason going into his rookie year. That really set him back. The fact that he was able to be around his coaches this offseason, we've seen a lot of growth. He's done a much better job of making decisions with the football – where should it go, where shouldn't it go. It's still a process, he's still very young in his development, but he's really grown as a quarterback and I attribute that to this offseason."
That offseason of work with his coaches and teammates sent Ponder into 2012 with a lot of confidence, and a determination not to be the weight that pulled the Vikings down.
"We knew we were going to improve on last year," he said. "Last year we didn't play well, specifically me. I knew that as a rookie I didn't perform as well as I wanted to, and I definitely take some of those losses we had last year as my doing. So I knew that if I improved this year our whole team would improve, and we have. We had high expectations for ourselves. [Being] 5-2 through seven games of the season doesn't really mean much yet. We know that we've got to stay focused and take it week-to-week."