One of the key fundamentals of sharp quarterback play is precise footwook. Christian Ponder and Matt Casell on the surface may have similar stats and appear to play the same typical West Coast game-manager style, however, it is their footwork that separates the two and consequently paints a picture of inconsistent play.
Cassel is a technician when it comes to his 5 step drops. The former Pro Bowl QB has sharp quick strides and he is able to consistently make his reads and release the ball a bit quicker than Ponder. I also think Cassel gets the hand off to the running backs slightly sooner as well. Now, with that said, after 5 steps all bets are off. Ponder is much better at stepping up in the pocket, throwing on the run or making a play when things break down.
Cassel is usually at his best during the first 5 steps. Ponder is at his best when he is able to move around and take more than 5 steps. Case in point, Ponder’s first and only completion during the preseason opener was when he finished his initial drop back but then stepped up in the pocket and delivered a ball right on the money to Jerome Simpson. On Ponder’s 2nd and final throw of the night, Ponder caught the snap out of the shot gun and immediately threw the ball without solid footwork. The ball got to Jerome Simpson too quickly and too far out in front to make the grab. A split second for Ponder to take a step and set his feet would’ve made all the difference.
Cassel on the other hand made most of his throws on precise drop backs and quick reads. His one interception came when he felt pressure and was forced to take additional steps by moving up in the pocket and forced a throw across his body (throwing across the body is a good indicator that the feet are not in a good position). If Cassel is not feeling heavy pressure, his footwork is much better and his end results can be very positive. Cassel did a good job moving the offense against the Texans and his 96.8 QB rating was a good first outing.
On the defensive side of the ball, I saw what I would consider a different wrinkle. On a number of occasions the Vikings would play the corners off about 6 yards and roll one of the safeties up on the line-of-scrimmage right next to the DE, thus showing a single high safety look. Brandon Bishop, Andrew Sendejo, Mistral Raymond and Darius Eubanks all took turns in the game lining up in the box. In a typical cover two scheme the safeties aren’t usually lined up on the line-of-scrimmage very often unless it is in short yardage or a goal line situation. Anyway, this defensive scheme helped the Vikings produce some good plays and some not so good plays. Here is the breakdown of a good play and a bad play when the Vikings used this safety in the box scheme.
The Vikings were up 10-3 in the second quarter and Jeff Locke pins the Texans on the 15 with a 33 yard punt. On first down Mistral Raymond was playing up on the line-of-scrimmage when TJ Yates took the snap from center and handed the ball off to Dennis Johnson, Raymond knifed in untouched and tackled the runner for a 3 yard loss. I only had a chance to watched the play once, so I am unsure if it was a designed safety blitz or just a great instinctive play by Raymond.
Later that same series it was Brandon Bishop in the box with Mistral Raymond playing single high safety over the top. The Texans were looking at 3rd and 8 on the Vikings’ 34 yard line. Bishop didn’t blitz, he dropped into coverage in the flat allowing TJ Yates plenty of time to fire a strike to DeAndre Hopkins over the coverage of Bobby Felder for the touchdown. Raymond playing center field could not get over fast enough to help cover Hopkins over the top. This situation may not have been the best time for a single high safety scheme (both safeties were in no position to make a play). All I can assume is that the Vikings were trying to tempt the Texans into taking the deep shot.
I think I will be comfortable with Harrison Smith in single high safety coverage, but that might be the only defensive back I would use in that position during the regular season.
If the Vikings continue to use this look, I hope that they would apply some physical press coverage with our big corners in games that really count.
Preseason should be taken with a grain of salt, so, I should just refrain from too much judgment on the QBs and safeties until I see a few more games. However, I will say this; at some point, Ponder will need to prove to me he can consistently excel in a quick strike West Coast offense. I know Ponder can extend plays with his feet… but watching Cassel move the chains and show some command in a quick rhythm passing attack was refreshing to see.