DAVE CAMPBELL,AP Pro Football Writer
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — The disappearance of Minnesota’s passing attack has produced plenty of theories from the frustrated fans and myriad analysts following the Vikings.
Christian Ponder has lost confidence. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s scheme is too conservative. The wide receivers aren’t deep enough, both on the roster and on the field.
Oh, and what happened to Kyle Rudolph?
The recent dive in aerial production appears as tied to Rudolph’s recent evaporation from the offense as any trend. The big tight end with the sure hands has a total of two catches for 17 yards over the last three games while being targeted eight times. The two lowest outputs of Ponder’s career, for yards passing in games he played start to finish, came in that stretch.
“We’re going to do a good job this week of trying to figure ways to get him the ball,” Ponder said. “They’re taking it away. We’re not trying to force things that aren’t there, but they are doing a good job of taking him away.”
Subtracting for sacks, the Vikings netted a mere 44 yards passing in the loss last week at Seattle, and that wasn’t even their lowest total of the season. Their passing net against Arizona, a game they won on Oct. 21, was 43 yards. In another victory, at Detroit on Sept. 30, the net was 100 yards.
Yardage isn’t a prerequisite for success, and to be sure totals are influenced by myriad factors, but it can be a barometer of ability.
“I have to do a better job of providing a target for Christian, whether it’s crossing routes or intermediate quick routes,” Rudolph said after practice Wednesday. “The biggest thing is getting separation at the top. Throughout the course of the game a person can watch and see, ‘Oh, you’re open there.’ But it’s always about the timing of the separation, and we need to get back on that same page of having the separation at the right time.”
Ponder has 558 attempts since he became the starter with 10 games left in the 2011 season, and 146 of them have gone to Harvin (26 percent), according to STATS LLC. But Rudolph is high on the list, tied with Devin Aromashodu for third with 71 targets in the last 19 games. Michael Jenkins is second with 72.
The team’s first two draft picks last year, Ponder and Rudolph have become close friends and forged an obvious connection on the field. Five of Ponder’s 10 touchdown throws have gone to Rudolph this season, despite the recent lag.
When guys like Tony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten compile catches, yards and scores like they’re wide receivers, Rudolph’s lack of obvious impact lately has looked more critical than it might have before.
“All people care about is pass stats. It’s all we talk about. How do you get to the Pro Bowl? Catch touchdowns. Catch passes,” Rudolph said. “But as a tight end there’s a whole lot more that goes into it than just that.”
Coach Leslie Frazier credited Rudolph’s blocking for helping free Adrian Peterson for his 182 yards rushing against the Seahawks.
“But we do want him included in our pass game. We had some things set up for him that didn’t happen because of coverage, sometimes because of rush and sometimes we just didn’t find him,” Frazier said.
With Rudolph and free agent addition John Carlson, the Vikings envisioned a dual threat in the middle of the field to help distract defenses from Peterson and do-it-all slot receiver Percy Harvin and help open up the others for deep throws. Carlson, who returned to the field Wednesday after missing the last two weeks because of concussion-like symptoms, has been hurt a lot and has just three catches.
Perhaps this will be the game, on Sunday against Detroit, when the Vikings finally show what they can do with their tight ends in the middle of the field. Even if they look like they’re covered.
“Part of being a good quarterback at our level is throwing into tight windows,” Frazier said. “He’s capable of doing that.”
Rudolph embraces those opportunities. With a 6-foot-6 frame and long arms to reach for a ball away from his body, he’s designed to make Ponder’s job easier.
“That’s why a tight end is your best friend,” Rudolph said, adding: “You’ve just got to have trust in us: ‘Even if I don’t make a perfect throw, he’s going to get it.'”
NOTES: Harvin and DT Letroy Guion (turf toe) were the only players who didn’t practice with the team Wednesday. … Rookie Jarius Wright, who has been drafted and developed to play Harvin’s role in the slot, could play in his first game this Sunday. Wright said Harvin has helped him learn how to better use his speed to be effective at that position. “I’ve been patiently waiting, and if they feel like I’m ready then I feel like I’m ready also,” Wright said.
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