Richard Martin

Pondering Minnesota's Preseason Productivity

Created on Aug. 25, 2013 6:00 AM EST

It’s easy to get all over Christian Ponder when the first-team offense isn’t productive, as it wasn’t in the second preseason game at Buffalo. There’s plenty of room on the Ponder bandwagon.

But the fact is that Ponder played decently against the Bills, and the whole first-team unit — the defense — was good. The game, which was 20-3 at one point before the Vikings made it a respectable 20-16, got out of hand when the first team left in the second quarter.

Let’s remember that it was 3-0 Vikings when the starters were finished for the day, with Ponder and the first team putting together a 12-play, 62-yard drive. The Bills didn’t even get a first down until 10:20 was remaining in the first quarter.

The Bills blitzed and played no-huddle, posing some problems for a Vikings team that wasn’t ready, especially guys who haven’t played much. The Bills also played their starters farther into the game. Considering that the Vikes’ offense was without a certain fellow named AP, their mediocre play was understandable.

The real problem with the offense was the pass protection. On the first play from scrimmage, the Bills’ Jerry Hughes raced past Matt Kalil and dumped Ponder. It was one of four Buffalo sacks, two versus Ponder. The Texans also had four sacks, which is part of a troubling trend.

Ponder made no horrible mistakes despite heavy pressure. The screwups came from others. Starting center John Sullivan snapped the ball before Ponder was ready; Kyle Rudolph dropped a good pass from Ponder; Blair Walsh missed a 49-yard field goal. There was little rush, with Toby Gerhart gaining eight yards.

Let’s face it, the team was handicapped. Of course, Adrian Peterson is the best runner in purple. But he’s also the best offensive lineman the team has. No one can slow down the rush like him. He’s the best receiver — no one can make people more open than AP. Without him, the Vikes are mediocre at best.

The crucial play in the whole scrimmage called a preseason game was a bad snap by Joe Berger (at the time of the game a backup center, now perhaps slinging hash browns at some greasy spoon) way over Matt Cassel’s head. Cassel raced to the end zone with three Bills players, but it was Jamie Blatnick who got the ball, scoring a touchdown to give the Bills the lead. And with the top Bills unit against Vikings reserves, Kevin Kolb finally put together a drive at the end of the first half.

I’m not sure the game settled how good the Bills are, though they beat the Colts last week, 44-20 and have certainly given the fans plenty of reasons for hope. But it surely decided who their best quarterback is. Kolb was tentative, E.J. Manuel decisive and accurate.

Also injured. That’s a complicating factor, but I have to say I was impressed with the guy. He should be the starter if he’s able to play.

Bills fans, who remember the team’s unhappy history as much as Vikings fans remember theirs, don’t like Kolb, who drew some boos when he kept throwing the ball behind receivers. (A Bills announcer, announcing the Vikes’ Blair Walsh’s field-goal try “wide right,” said those are terrible words for Buffalo fans. Hey, I know your pain. Just as you remember your field-goal kicker missing in the Super Bowl, Vikes fans remember Gary Anderson missing a kick against the Falcons in the 1999 NFC championship game that would’ve clinched a date in the Super Bowl. And the Vikes, too, have lost the big one four times.)

For the Vikings, the game might’ve settled who gets the third-string quarterback job. McLeod Bethel-Thompson played quite well despite some pressure, and had a 36-yard touchdown pass (the only one for the team) on a fine toss to some guy named Rodney Smith. Bethel-Thompson was 10-for-17 for 107 yards and had a quarterback rating of 96.9, better than Ponder and Cassel achieved.

Another intriguing development is that the team might be changing its punt returner. Bobby Felder ran one punt back for 37 and had three overall for 62 yards. That compared with Marcus Sherels’s two returns for 10. Sherels had one shining moment last year, returning a punt 77 yards for a touchdown in Detroit , and has done little since. (And let’s remember that the Lions’ kick and punt coverage last year was pitiful.) It’s an open competition, but I have a feeling Felder’s going to get the job unless he screws up.

Joe Banyard also played well. On the field with Bethel-Thompson, he rushed seven times for 47 yards, including a 38-yarder. Zach Line had another good catch and run. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t make the team. Here are some other game notes:

* Jeff Locke has proved he’s a great pooch punter. A couple more of his punts were downed inside the five. On the other hand, two of his longer punts were quite returnable, and one was taken back 34 yards by rookie Robert Woods, the second-round pick from USC.

*  Stephen Burton had another big play, a kickoff return that went for a touchdown but was called back because of a penalty. (A Vikings player just grabbed a Bills player, and a Buffalo announcer said, “It looked like a second date.” Good line. But, guys, I don’t know about you, but I don’t jump a woman from behind.)

*  Walsh, despite a miss, had some more touchbacks and made a 36-yard field goal. Special teams were good except for one good punt return. They should be a strength this season.

*  Sharrif Floyd didn’t play and will miss the final two preseason games. He’ll make the team, but the brass has some tough choices on the defensive line. Also with the receivers and linebackers. If some ragged play in preseason games is the price for helping the coaches make decisions, so be it.

* Making season-ticket holders pay for two preseason games is ridiculous. In the Vikes’ first two games, no one saw Adrian Peterson. It’s a scrimmage that some teams take more seriously than others. Charging full price is shameful.

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