Christian Ponder, improved defense keying Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have been one of the NFL's biggest surprises during the early part of the season. A team expected to finish in the cellar of the NFC North has jumped out to a 3-1 start and sits tied atop the division with the Chicago Bears.

With so much optimism and intrigue in the Twin Cities, I decided to pop in some tape and see what's behind the Vikings' hot start. Here are four big factors:

1) Christian Ponder is the NFL's Most Improved Player

Most NFL players make their biggest improvement between their first to second seasons. Quarterbacks, in particular, appear to have a better grasp for the speed of the pro game and the complexities of deciphering coverage. In addition, signal-callers begin to understand the importance of game management and ball security.

Ponder has been remarkable in all phases of his development in 2012. He has improved his completion percentage from 54.3 percent as a rookie to 68.3 percent, while bumping his passer rating up from 70.1 to a lofty 97.7. While those numbers are certainly impressive on their own, the noticeable improvements that stand out on tape are what really caught my eye.

Through the first four games of the season, Ponder has consistently made accurate throws to every area of the field with outstanding zip, velocity and ball placement. He routinely hits his intended receivers in stride, allowing them to pick up extra yardage after the throw. Most impressively, Ponder has shown better poise and confidence within the pocket, which has led to better decisions and more playmaking from the second-year pro. As a result, Ponder has yet to throw an interception, while tallying four touchdown passes (and one TD run).

In the screengrab below from the Vikings' Week 2 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Ponder displays outstanding poise and awareness on a shallow crossing route by Kyle Rudolph:

When Ponder reads the Colts defender jumping Adrian Peterson in the flat, he waits patiently for Rudolph to execute his stutter-and-go move across the field, before leading him into the vacant area in front of the end zone:

The result is a six-yard touchdown to tie the game with only 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter. (But alas, Andrew Luck responded by driving the Colts for the game-winning field goal, giving Minnesota its only loss.)

2) The Adrian Peterson effect

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It typically takes a running back two seasons to fully recover from a severe knee injury, but Peterson has defied the odds by returning to a Pro Bowl level only eight months removed from ACL surgery. The sixth-year pro hasn't shown any lingering effects of the injury, and his ability to produce at an exceedingly high level has been critical to the overall effectiveness of the offense.

Peterson, who ranks 10th in the NFL with 332 rushing yards, has tallied 20-plus carries in two of the Vikings' first four games, and is coming off his first 100-yard game of the season. Most importantly, he has started to display the speed, power and explosiveness that led most NFL evaluators to tab him as the best running back in the game prior to his injury. Although he is still trying to find his rhythm as a runner, Peterson has been so good during the early part of the season that opponents are back to using eight-man fronts to defend the Vikings' offense on early downs. Those tactics have certainly limited his big-play potential, but it has enabled the Vikings to utilize a balanced approach and take advantage of the soft coverage on the perimeter.

In the screengrab below from the Vikings' Week 4 win over the Detroit Lions, Peterson will run the power to the left:

This has been Minnesota's bread-and-butter play since Peterson's arrival, due to his explosiveness between the tackles. Peterson attacks the line of scrimmage with a burst and displays signature power by running through an arm tackle at the point of attack:

Most runners recovering from ACL surgery are hesitant to hit the hole or run through tacklers in their first year back, but Peterson has shown no ill effects from his injury and turns this simple play into an 18-yard gain.

3) Percy Harvin's development into an unlikely No. 1 receiver

Harvin is certainly one of the NFL's most explosive playmakers, but he has exceeded everyone's expectations by developing into the Vikings' No. 1 receiver. At 5-foot-9, 184 pounds, Harvin lacks the standard physical dimensions of most top targets, yet he has become a dominant playmaker in Minnesota's passing game. He ranks third in the league with 30 receptions and has made enough critical plays in the passing game to balance an offense that typically relies on the rugged play of Peterson.

A large part of Harvin's success can be attributed to his ability to transform short passes into big gains, thanks to his extraordinary running skills. As an accomplished kick returner and former running back with exceptional speed and quickness, Harvin is at his best when given the ball in the open field. The Vikings capitalize on his skills by getting him touches on a variety of bubble screens, quick passes and crossing routes designed to get him isolated on linebackers and defensive backs in space. He routinely makes the first defender miss, and his ability to pick up chunks of yardage after the reception makes him a deadly weapon on offense.

With Ponder able to depend on Harvin in any situation, the Vikings' offense has provided enough playmaking and points to help key this sizzling start.

4) The Purple People Eaters are back

For all of the credit that deservedly goes to Ponder, Peterson and Harvin for anchoring an efficient Vikings' offense, it has been the re-emergence of the defense that has really sparked the team's surprising start. The unit ranks eighth in total defense and seventh in rushing yards allowed and scoring defense. Most importantly, the Vikings are holding opposing quarterbacks to a respectable passer rating of 88.8, giving up an average of only 6.5 yards per passing attempt. Those numbers represent a drastic improvement from 2011, when the defense gave up 358.2 yards per game (21st) and allowed quarterbacks to post a sparkling 107.6 passer rating.

Much of the credit for the Vikings' defensive surge goes to new defensive coordinator Alan Williams, and his ability to rebuild the defensive line. The defensive front -- which features Jared Allen, Everson Griffin and Brian Robison coming off the edge at defensive end and Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion inside at defensive tackle -- has keyed this resurrection. This group stops the run, while also generating a consistent pass rush. The Vikings are only surrendering 3.3 yards per rushing attempt, which forces opponents into long-yardage situations on subsequent downs. At that point, the Vikings' defensive line can ignore the threat of the run and hunt the quarterback aggressively in the pocket. This has resulted in the unit collecting seven of the team's 12 sacks, the most of any defensive line in the NFL.

In the screengrab below from the Lions game, the Vikings execute a TEX stunt between Williams and Griffen on the left, with Allen and Guion rushing through their assigned gaps on the right:

With Williams clearing the way, Griffen sneaks inside and eventually tracks down Matthew Stafford for a game-clinching sack.

The consistent pass rush from the front four has allowed Williams to drop seven defenders into coverage and force opponents to settle for check downs and intermediate throws against the Vikings' blanket coverage. Although this tactic hasn't completely suffocated opposing passing games, it has taken away the big play and forced opponents to drive the ball the length of the field. With most offenses unable to consistently string together drives of seven plays or more, the ability to make opponents resort to a "dink and dunk" game plan yields positive results for the Vikings.

In the screengrab below from the Vikings' Week 3 win over the San Francisco 49ers, the Vikings are executing a twist game with the LDE (Robison) and LDT (Griffen in this play) criss-crossing immediately after the snap. The RDT (Kevin Williams) will loop inside LDE to create confusion at the line of scrimmage:

The combination of penetration and a jumping Vikings defender forces an errant pass from Alex Smith:

The result is essentially a game-clinching interception for the defense, giving Minnesota a huge upset win.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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