The Minnesota Vikings are set up to win without commanding performances by Christian Ponder.
This run-first team that relies on stingy defense, favorable field position and strong special teams play doesn't need Ponder to put on a passing clinic each week. But if he continues to play the way he did in the season opener, the Vikings soon will have to find a new quarterback.
Ponder not only struggled with his accuracy again during the 34-24 loss at Detroit, he failed to produce the important completions to finish drives. The Vikings might have been able to overcome those problems, but Ponder also was responsible for four turnovers against a Lions team he beat twice last year.
"You have to be exceptional to win those games when you finish minus in the turnover ratio," coach Leslie Frazier said. "We haven't shown that we are exceptional to be able to do that."
Ponder's midseason problems were so glaring in 2012 they cast a shadow over his whole year, despite these combined statistics in the first four and last four games: eight touchdown passes, a completion percentage of 64.9 and only one interception. Oh, and that 7-1 record for the team.
There was enough success to create a blueprint that Ponder could follow to become a capable starter for the Vikings for years to come, but there were also so many red flags that he entered his third NFL season under as much scrutiny as any quarterback in the league. After qualifying for the playoffs with a 10-6 record last year, well, the speculation was only natural about how a weak passing game was wasting Adrian Peterson's prime and the rest of the talent on the roster.
The biggest problem for the Vikings, for all their players who've been to a Pro Bowl or were high draft picks with potential, is they can't overcome an off game as quickly or as easily as other teams.
Part of that is the nature of relying on a running back as their primary weapon. The biggest challenge, though, is Ponder hasn't shown the ability to consistently complete the passes the Vikings need for a late comeback or to keep the kickers on the sideline. Until then, he's either limited or, worse, a liability.
He threw two second-quarter interceptions Sunday, one that the Lions turned into a touchdown. A third throw, for Jarius Wright on a short out route, would've been picked off and returned for a score had Bill Bentley not dropped it. Then in the fourth, Ponder tripped and failed to give Peterson a clean handoff. The fumble was recovered by the Lions and, again, turned into a touchdown.
"We knew coming into this game that we would have a chance but we would have to play flawlessly," Ponder said. "It's a divisional game on the road. It's tough to win."
Amid the ugliness of that second quarter, Ponder flashed some rays of hope. Fred Evans batted a ball at the line that Erin Henderson intercepted one play after Ponder's second pass of the game was picked off. Ponder then connected with tight end Kyle Rudolph for 21 yards and Jerome Simpson for 44 yards to set up a short touchdown scamper by Peterson. With that one and a diving, over-the-shoulder catch Simpson later made for a 47-yard gain, Ponder had two completions that would've ranked third and fifth on his 2012 list of longest passes.
"He did some good things, and you've just got to develop that consistency all the way throughout," Frazier said. "He did play with a lot of confidence at times, but you want it to be consistent throughout, over the course of four quarters."
The wide receivers played well, further highlighting Ponder's problems. Simpson caught seven passes for 140 yards.
"It's always frustrating, but you've just got to forget about it and move on to next week, the Chicago game," Simpson said. "I believe in the guy, and he's going to come back even stronger and more confident this next week."
NOTES: LB Desmond Bishop was on the active list against the Lions, but didn't play. Frazier said there's nothing different that Bishop, who was beaten out by Marvin Mitchell to be the weakside starter, must do. Bishop mentioned "luck" and "prayer" when asked what he needed to get on the field and said he wasn't sure how to explain his absence. With the Vikings in their nickel defense the majority of the game, Mitchell only played 15 of the 80 snaps. ... Frazier described the injury to center John Sullivan as a bruised left knee and said he should be able to practice Wednesday. Sullivan said he feels fine. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams is expected to resume practicing on a limited basis by Wednesday. ... Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson caught one pass but was on the field for only five of 55 plays. "He's healthy. We're going to try and get him a few more snaps, but we need to get a few more first downs and stay on the field longer with our offense," Frazier said.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org
Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP