NFL Preview - Minnesota (2-8) at Green Bay (5-5)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Loyalty can be an admirable trait but it's also one which may cost Leslie Frazier his job in Minnesota.
Frazier is standing by embattled starting quarterback Christian Ponder yet again as the Vikings prepare to make the short trip over to Green Bay for a matchup with the ailing Packers.
Ponder is coming off one of his worst performances yet in a 40-21 setback at Seattle. No one really expected Minnesota to beat one of the NFL's best teams on the road but the Vikings were actually hanging in the game until early in the fourth quarter when Ponder unleashed two of the ugliest interceptions you will ever see on back-to-back possessions.
Despite the continued poor play, however, Frazier made the curious decision to stick with Ponder despite having two viable alternatives in Matt Cassel, who has consistently outplayed the Florida State product when given the opportunity, as well as former Tampa Bay starter Josh Freeman.
"Christian Ponder is going to be our starting quarterback against Green Bay. Looking forward to watching him perform and lead our team to a win on Sunday. I'm sure some of the follow-up questions will be, why?" Frazier said, anticipating the second guessing over his move.
"I believe, like in every decision you make, you try to make a decision based on who you think gives you the best chance to succeed," the coach continued. "In our case, we think that's Christian at this point. He's had some success against Green Bay's defense. He's familiar with their team and their personnel. Christian gives us the best chance to be successful on Sunday."
Ponder certainly didn't give the Vikings the best chance last Sunday in Seattle, finishing a dismal 13-of-22 for 129 yards and a touchdown with the two interceptions, one of which was returned 29 yards for a touchdown by Walter Thurmond.
"I made my mistakes in the second half," Ponder admitted. "It's a tough loss. As an offense, specifically me, we need more."
Cassel replaced Ponder in the fourth and finished 5-of-13 passing for 78 yards and a touchdown with one interception.
A banged-up Adrian Peterson rushed for 65 yards on 21 carries, while Jarius Wright caught three passes for 69 yards and scored both touchdowns for the Vikings, who were coming off a 34-27 victory over Washington.
Ponder's day seemed doomed from the start, as he showed little pocket awareness while being sacked and losing the football on the third play from scrimmage.
Then, with the Vikings trailing 24-13, Seattle's Bobby Wagner, who dropped what would have likely been an easy pick-six on Minnesota's prior possession, intercepted Ponder on Minnesota's second play of the fourth and returned it nine yards to the Vikings 18. Two plays later, the Seahawks scored.
Thurmond cut out the middle man and put the game away three plays later, as he picked off Ponder and returned it 29 yards for a 38-13 cushion.
Green Bay, meanwhile, has also hit the skids since All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone on the team's first series against Chicago back on Nov. 4.
Scott Tolzien threw three interceptions in place of the injured former league MVP last week in North Jersey, one of which was returned 24 yards by Jason Pierre-Paul for a momentum-changing touchdown in the fourth quarter as the New York Giants topped the free-falling Packers, 27-13, at MetLife Stadium.
"He made a nice play, but it's on me. I gave him a freebie there, really. It was a huge momentum swing," Tolzien said of the Pierre-Paul interception.
Tolzien did do some good things in his first NFL start, throwing for 339 yards on 24-of-34 efficiency and leading a long touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter that brought the Packers within 20-13.
His next series ended in disaster, however, with Pierre-Paul making an athletic leaping grab of the young quarterback's attempt in the flat and racing untouched to the end zone with 10:49 left to play.
Green Bay has now dropped three straight since Rodgers exited the team's Week 9 loss to the Bears.
Jordy Nelson racked up 117 yards on eight catches against the Giants for Green Bay, with Jarrett Boykin amassing 91 yards on six grabs.
The Packers lead their all-time regular season series with Minnesota by a 56-49-1 margin thanks to a spike in recent years, winning 10 of the past 12 matchups in the rivalry.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Tolzien, an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin threw for 280 yards in his first NFL game against Philadelphia and followed that up with 339 in his first start against the Giants. Ponder, the No. 12 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, has thrown for 280-or-more in exactly two of 34 NFL games despite playing with the best running back in all of football.
When the bullets begin to fly, Ponder shows little to no pocket presence and is a one-read and go quarterback, who simply can't advance through his progressions. He fails to let plays develop and locate open receivers downfield, instead tucking the ball and flushing to his right or left again and again.
Ponder also is easily baited by simple zone coverages that top-tier QBs eat for the lunch and is susceptible to the edge rush because he seems unwilling to step up in the pocket. He is clearly the team's third-best option at QB right now but for whatever reason the headstrong Frazier fails to recognize that and therefore the Vikings won't be able to take advantage of Green Bay's less than stellar D.
Ponder is just 13-20 as an NFL starter and a dismal 1-6 this season with 13 turnovers.
"I was operating under the assumption that I would be (starting)," Ponder said. "I appreciate coach Frazier having the confidence in me to be able to go out this week and play."
Like any signal caller with little experience Tolzien will make some mistakes, something that has to be cleaned up.
"He has a lot of good football ahead of him, but the reality is, and he knows this more than anybody, he has to take care of the football," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
The Minnesota defense is hardly a group that will take advantage of any potential Tolzien mistakes, however. The group has generated just one turnover since safety Harrison Smith, perhaps the only difference-maker on the unit, was placed on short-term injured reserve with turf toe over a month ago.
Adding to the problems is an injury to starting cornerback Josh Robinson, who will be out at least 4-to-6 weeks because of a fractured sternum.
With Smith and Robinson the Vikings had one of the worst secondaries in football and without them things figure to get even worse.
The Vikings' antiquated defensive philosophy, which is far too dependent on simple cover-2 philosophy, has morphed with undisciplined gap play, injuries and an overall lack of talent to create a perfect storm of ineptitude on that side of the football.
On the injury front Green Bay could be without cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Sam Shields, who are both dealing with hamstring issues, while the Vikings' Peterson is iffy with a groin and receiver Greg Jennings, an ex-Packers star, is dealing with a sore Achilles.
With Tolzien expected to start again this week for Green Bay in place of the injured Rodgers, this will be the first time in over two decades that Minnesota sees the Green and Gold without either Brett Favre or Rodgers under center.
The Vikings haven't been quite as consistent, starting 13 different signal callers over that same time frame. A 14th this time around -- either Cassel or Freeman -- would have given them a chance but winning with Ponder in Lambeau Field is a tall order.
"Extremely important football game this week," McCarthy said. "It's a division game, it's a home game. We've had two home games get away from us. Part of the formula for success in any football season is winning your home games. We need to play better. We need to perform better. We need to prepare better."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 31, Vikings 20
11/21 13:23:25 ET