Vikings QB Ponder has progressed

SAN FRANCISCO -- Defense ran cover 2 to the weakside, quarters to the strong side. The quarterback first looks to Jerome Simpson to the "X" on a hook route, then to Kyle Rudolph, who was covered by the safety, leaving the middle of the field vuln...

SAN FRANCISCO -- Defense ran cover 2 to the weakside, quarters to the strong side. The quarterback first looks to Jerome Simpson to the "X" on a hook route, then to Kyle Rudolph, who was covered by the safety, leaving the middle of the field vulnerable. On the third read, "Stevie B" was wide open on the post.

That's the way Christian Ponder described his 52-yard pass to Stephen Burton on the offense's second play of a 17-6 loss to San Francisco in Friday night's preseason opener.

These plays make football fun to watch, and Ponder, considered a studious young quarterback, was excited telling it shortly after a 4-of-9 performance for 80 yards and two well-paced drives downfield.

But Ponder's performance also showed that the boring plays -- the sound football plays -- will be just as important to his development.

Three plays after the long gain to Burton, Ponder escapes a rush and rolls to his right. With nowhere to go with the ball, he purposely throws the ball to running back Toby Gerhart's feet and settles for a Blair Walsh field goal, one of two on the night.


Better than a sack or an interception. Ponder knows this. He always did. But he also was desperate to make plays as a rookie, and after 13 interceptions in 10 starts, he's tired of the trend.

It's time for some balance in his football life, as long as the occasional conservative approach doesn't curb an aggressive downfield attack when necessary.

"I don't want to be too careful and not take big plays and not take risks," Ponder said. "You learn what throws and risks you can make and which ones you can't. You'd much rather take a shorter completion with a less-percentage throw. We want to run that clock out and be efficient."

Despite zero touchdowns on the night, Ponder's performance garnered positive reviews because every throw had a purpose.

Of his five incompletions, three were dropped by receivers -- not thrown perfectly, but catchable and delivered into the receivers' hands -- and two were thrown away to avoid a negative play. Simpson, Michael Jenkins and Burton were involved on those drive-stalling plays, but the first-team offense still went for 13 plays, 68 yards and more than six minutes on the second drive.

The tempo stalled from there. Backups Joe Webb and McLeod Bethel-Thompson completed a combined 7-of-18 passes for 69 yards and an interception.

Ponder didn't see anyone open on a second-down passing play in the red zone, so he sailed the ball out of bounds.

The preseason is about growth above wins, which is why coach Leslie Frazier is pleased with his quarterback.


"The command he showed, the confidence he played with early on, it gives us hope," Frazier said. "He seems to be much farther along."

The play to Burton eased any tension. Knowing they'll be without Simpson for the first three games, the Vikings must like seeing Ponder connect with one of his young backup receivers. Burton got the starting nod because the Vikings wanted to learn more about him, and Percy Harvin was a healthy scratch.

Turns out he was the only player among a cluster of young backups to record a catch through the first three quarters. Kerry Taylor caught two passes in the fourth quarter, but that was it. Devin Aromashodu, Emmanuel Arceneaux, Jarius Wright and others didn't catch a pass.

The Vikings don't want to sign an aging free agent receiver to join a young team, but they need assurances that Burton and others are developing quickly, especially with rookie Greg Childs out with torn patellar tendons. Burton's over-the-shoulder catch got their attention.

"You always have to step up when someone is not playing or whatever the situation may be," Burton said.

Added Ponder: "I wish I would have put it out and let him run under it. It could have been a touchdown."

First downs could be easier to come by if the offensive line keeps improving. Ponder seemed almost shocked by his new pocket, compared to last year's that kept shrinking on him.

"I had so much time back there, it was unbelievable," Ponder said.


Friday marked the debut of rookie left tackle Matt Kalil, who got beat on a third-down play that resulted in Ponder throwing it away, but otherwise held up well. Toby Gerhart rushed five times for 31 yards.

The defense didn't fare as well. The 49ers rushed nine times on a 12-play opening touchdown drive capped by a 4-yard touchdown pass to Brett Swain, who got a step on cornerback Chris Carr to find the back of the end zone. San Francisco's 84-yard drive lasted more than seven minutes.

Worsening matters was the canyon-sized hole in the Vikings' defense that Colin Kaepernick bolted through for a 78-yard touchdown run early in the second drive. Defensive end Nick Reed bit on Kaepernick's option read/fake and the defensive back end wasn't ready.

The 49ers finished with 198 rushing yards in the first half, which Carr contributes to the Vikings' basic defense on opening night, the 49ers multiple sets and the difficulty simulating rush defense in practice because the lack of contact.

"It was difficult on us, so we need to work on some things," Carr said.

Fred Evans' athletic open-field sack of Kaepernick, cornerback Zack Bowman's pass breakup on a third down and rookie safety Harrison Smith's open-field tackle on a running play for a short gain were among the few highlights for the first two strings. Third-string linebacker Solomon Elimimian picked off Scott Tolzien deep in Vikings territory with 12:46 left.

Frazier will have plenty of tape to identity defensive improvements, wondering whether his players were "in the gaps where they should have been" in run defense.

Meanwhile, he'll see an offense trying to become more poised -- and a quarterback realizing the power of discernment.

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