(Sports Network) - Two teams moving in opposite directions will meet in an NFCNorth matchup at Mall of America Field on Sunday when the struggling MinnesotaVikings play host to the resurgent Detroit Lions.
The Vikings have hit the skids thanks in large part to the deficiencies oftheir second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. In this pass happy era of NFLfootball Ponder has been egregiously bad for about a month now, failing tothrow for even 100 yards on three different occasions.
He hit rock bottom in Seattle last Sunday during Minnesota's 30-20 setback tothe Seahawks, throwing for just 63 yards, the second time in three weeks themoribund Vikings' passing game has offered little production despite a arushing game which generated 243 yards, 182 of them from the best running backin football, Adrian Peterson.
"We are struggling in a lot of areas right now," said Minnesota head coachLeslie Frazier. "We were not able to capitalize on Adrian's day and that'sdifficult to swallow. We need to have more balance."
Balance wasn't a problem for Detroit in Jacksonville last weekend when theLions used a stifling defense combined with a career day from running backMikel Leshoure en route to a 31-14 win over the Jaguars.
Leshoure found the end zone three times in the second quarter and finished thecontest with 70 yards on 16 carries while the Detroit defense limitedJacksonville to just one first down in the first half and two touchdowns inthe fourth quarter.
Matthew Stafford went 22-for-33 with 285 yards, Calvin Johnson had sevencatches for 129 yards while Joique Bell added 13 carries for 73 yards and ascore for the Lions, who have won their past two games to get back to .500 onthe season.
"The most important thing is that we won the game," said Detroit head coachJim Schwartz. "Any time you can come away with a road game is huge for a team.I thought we executed really well and we adjusted to what they were doing. I'mreally proud of the offensive line and our running game today."
Minnesota has dominated the Lions for most of this series, compiling a gaudy67-33-2 mark against them, including a 20-13 win in the Motor City back onSept. 30 when Percy Harvin returned a kickoff for 105 yards and a touchdownand Marcus Sherels added a 77-yard punt return score.
Ponder, however, was just 16-of-26 for 111 yards in that one.
"We have struggled in the passing game," Frazier added. "We've struggled for acouple of games here now. We know that in order for us to achieve our goals asa team, we've got to create some balance on offense and take advantage of ourability to run the football as well as we can."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ponder's early returns were promising in 2012 as Minnesota got off to animpressive 4-1 start, but the wheels have come off over the last month.
It was the Washington Redskins who exposed Ponder on Oct. 14 with the overloadblitz. Harassed and hurried, the Florida State product has looked like arookie again ever since, failing to recognize things pre-snap and undergoing acomplete breakdown in mechanics.
Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave began losing confidence in Ponderand the second-year starter has thrown all eight of his interceptions in thelast five games. Overall, the Vikings have 12 turnovers in those five contestsand almost all of them are directly related to Ponder, who has been makingextremely poor decisions, particularly when he's out of the pocket trying toextend plays. Ponder is athletic, but those aforementioned mechanics fallapart when he's on the move, causing his ball to sail.
"I think, for me, it's going back to technique, working on my footwork andworking on my reads and everything," Ponder said. "One thing I need tocontinue is to keep stepping up in the pocket and not flushing left or right,but keep moving forward."
The problem is Ponder has been saying that for weeks now. He recognizes theissues but sliding in the pocket or stepping up while displaying at leastpassable fundamentals is an innate ability which can't be taught. When thebullets start flying, Ponder regresses to what's natural to him, and hisdefault settings are just not conducive to solid quarterback play at the NFLlevel.
Ponder apologists point to a lack of separation from Minnesota's pedestrianwide receiver group, but the "All-22" coaches film tells a different story.Time and time again, the opposition is sticking eight or even nine in the boxto stop Peterson and Ponder has been unable or unwilling to take advantage ofplay-action. He simply doesn't have the confidence to grip it and rip it.
To his credit, Ponder refused to follow the Vikings' talking points designedto protect him.
"We've got good receivers, we've got good blocking up front. I've just got todo a better job to get the ball in their hands," Ponder said. "This team isn'tone-dimensional. This offense isn't one-dimensional. We've shown that the pastcouple games, but we can throw the ball. We're going to figure it out andwe're going to win in the air."
Things will be even tougher for Ponder this week since Harvin is in jeopardyof missing Sunday's game after severely spraining his ankle in Seattle.
Harvin hurt himself on a rushing attempt late in the third quarter butfinished the contest although he was clearly hobbling throughout. The standoutplaymaker entered the Vikings' facility on crutches on Monday and toldreporters the ankle was sprained in three different places. An MRI takenMonday confirmed a significant sprain, though Harvin did not sustain anyfractures.
"I'm in a lot of pain," Harvin said. "There's a lot of swelling as of rightnow. My whole ankle, all the way around is swollen. So we've got a lot to workto do. It's a longshot (to play Sunday). But I'm not ruling myself out."
For the Lions, Stafford figures to eat up a Minnesota secondary withoutinjured cornerback Chris Cook, especially if he gets any production fromLeshoure in the backfield.
Leshoure ran for just 26 yards on 13 carries the first time these two teamsmet bit the Vikings defense has allowed a 100-yard rushing effort in four oftheir five games since.
"Defensively, our run defense doesn't resemble the type of run defense we'recapable of playing," Frazier said. "We have to go back to the drawing boardand come up with some ways to defend the run better than we're doing."
Any semblance of a running game should open up play action for the strong-armed Stafford.
Just as Ponder has fallen apart in recent weeks Stafford has heated up,reaching 10,000 career passing yards during a win over the Jags last Sunday.Stafford reached the mark in just 37 games, the second fastest in history toKurt Warner, who did it in 36.
That trend figures to continue in this one.
"I think that whether it's the first game of the year or the ninth game of theyear, whatever it is, when you're playing a division opponent it becomes moreimportant because a win for you also puts a loss on them," Schwartz said. "Theway (the Vikings) started the season, they put themselves in the picture. Wecan't worry about that. We need to worry about just this game."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 28, Vikings 13