For the Minnesota Vikings to maintain their winning record in the second half of the season, the passing game must improve.
As built as they are around the exploits of running back Adrian Peterson, the ball simply has to move farther and more often through the air than it has in October.
Christian Ponder's 6.65-yard average per attempt ranks 25th in the league. All seven of his interceptions have been thrown in the last four games. The problems transcend the quarterback, as they often do in the NFL, but he's where the offense begins and ends. During Minnesota's 36-17 loss to Tampa Bay last week, Ponder wasn't able to lift the passing game out of the rut it's in.
"Everything's fixable, so we've just got to fix it," Ponder said.
With nine days between their last game and Sunday's matchup at Seattle, the Vikings have refocused on fundamentals. Ponder has concentrated on his footwork in the pocket when the pressure is on, trying to make sure he steps forward rather than shuffling left or right. The wide receivers, from Percy Harvin to Jerome Simpson, have been working on sharpening their routes.
Whether from poor protection by the offensive line, bad decisions by Ponder, receivers not finding open spaces or simply good, smart defense against them, these breakdowns for the Vikings have been induced by a variety of factors.
"If it's a 12-yard route, not cutting it short at eight yards. That just throws off the timing of the quarterback," Harvin said, adding: "The plays are there. We look on film, and guys are open. We're not clicking at the same time."
Harvin said the Buccaneers talked after the game about sending all the blitzes they had in their playbook, confident the Vikings didn't have enough time in a shortened week to prepare for them all. So even though the Seahawks aren't a blitz-heavy defense, the Vikings would be foolish not to expect extra pressure.
One of the problems, Frazier said, is that Peterson's production has actually attracted blitzes designed to fill the gaps and stop him. But the responsibility still falls on Ponder to avoid the sack and find the open receiver. Because the offense can always count on someone being open when an extra defender comes on a rush.
"I've just got to do a better job of recognizing it and getting the ball out of my hands and finding that spot where they're most vulnerable," Ponder said.
Frazier said he's not concerned about his second-year quarterback's ability to make the right play against the blitz — and make it count.
"He's grown so much when it comes to dealing with pressure, whether it comes from a guy coming off the edge or somebody in his face," Frazier said. "And he'll get better as time goes on."
One potential source for a boost to the passing game is rookie Jarius Wright, who is healthy but has yet to be on the active list for any game this year. The fourth-round draft pick from Arkansas has the kind of speed that could help provide an alternative to Harvin in the slot position, and he's been running routes after practice recently, perhaps a sign the Vikings are finally ready to use him.
"I'm 85 to 90 percent a different player, just from the beginning of the season to now," Wright said, adding: "My day is coming. I really believe that. I'm just going to wait patiently."
There'll be another wide receiver on the field Sunday who the Vikings have used to ignite their passing game in the past, but he won't be of any help. He's on the other team. Sidney Rice, after an injury-influenced slow start to his time with the Seahawks, has begun to find a groove with rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
"It's going to be exciting going against those guys," Rice said on a conference call with Minnesota reporters on Wednesday afternoon. "I looked up the scouting report today, and I counted out nine of the 11 starters on defense that I played with when I was there, so it's going to be fun. I know how those guys play. It's a lot of smart, athletic guys over there on that side of the ball, so as receivers we've got to be ready."
As do the Vikings.
"We're still on the same page," Simpson said. "We're going to just try and get back to where we were and be the best we can be."
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