EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Christian Ponder's decision-making, accuracy and ability to avoid the big mistake were three of the biggest keys to Minnesota's surprising 4-1 start to the season.
Along the way he even got away with a few shaky throws, thanks to a butter-fingered defensive back or a well-timed flag thrown by a replacement referee.
Both his magic and his luck ran out against the Washington Redskins on Sunday, and now the young Vikings quarterback has to regroup after two straight weeks of turnover-filled performances.
Ponder went the first four games without an interception, but has thrown four in the past two outings.
The Redskins returned one for a touchdown on Sunday, and he also fumbled a ball deep in Minnesota territory that led to another score in the Vikings' 38-26 loss in Washington.
"It's disappointing, for sure," Ponder said after the game. "You never want to have those situations, but you just have to forget about it."
One thing Vikings coaches are urging fans to remember is that Ponder is only in his second season, and first full one as the starter. They know that there are going to be days like that one as part of Ponder's learning curve. They just hope that they get fewer and farther between as the season goes on.
"No doubt about it, he's in his second season," coach Leslie Frazier said on Monday. "There' going to be some growing pains along the way. We know that. This is a part of the process with him, part of the evolution of being an NFL starter. And we grow as a team, he'll grow. But things like what happened yesterday could happen as he continues to gain more experience."
Ponder completed 35 of 52 passes for 352 yards, two TDs, two interceptions and a fumble lost to the Redskins, a return to the error-prone performances he put up as a rookie.
His fumble set up a Redskins touchdown on the very next play and a poorly thrown ball in the fourth quarter was intercepted to thwart any chance of another late-game comeback.
The defeat wasn't all on his shoulders, of course. The Redskins put plenty of pressure on Ponder and had their safeties crowd the line of scrimmage to concentrate on stopping Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin while virtually ignoring the possibility of getting beat deep.
With speedster Jerome Simpson out with a back ailment, the Vikings were missing the field stretcher to keep defenses honest. Harvin is dynamic but does most of his damage underneath while Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu have had difficulty gaining separation down the field.
"We have some things in place," Frazier said. "Now it's a matter of can we hit some of those big plays down the field? But as people continue to creep toward the line of scrimmage, you definitely want to be able to take some shots down the field."
Simpson has been dealing with a back issue that causes numbness in his leg for about a week now. He said on Monday that he was surprised to be deactivated against the Redskins and that he expects to be on the field when the Vikings host the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
"Me being a competitor I always want to play the game, play in the game, so I just have to go with his decision and what he thinks is best for the team," said Simpson, who missed the first three games because of a suspension.
Frazier said Simpson will be monitored in practice throughout the week before a decision is made.
"He's a competitor, which is what you appreciate about him," Frazier said. "He wanted to be out there. But we'll see how it goes this week. He's a competitor. He wants to play. He wants to help our team win and we'll evaluate it this week."
The last time the Vikings lost, they gathered themselves and reeled off three straight victories. They expect to rebound just as nicely after their second defeat and have faith that Ponder will start to turn things around as well.
"They did some things up front that we kind of practiced the opposite," Harvin said. "They switched up a few things on us. So it clouded what he was seeing a little bit. At the same time, we all take responsibility. We just want to play a clean game."
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