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By ZACH HEILPRIN
GREEN BAY -- If you were surprised that Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback Christian Ponder didn’t play in Saturday night’s NFC Wild Card game, you weren’t alone.
In fact, nearly every defensive player on the Green Bay Packers was right there with you.
“The coaches never said anything to us,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “I saw it on TV, actually. I saw it up in the training room. I was watching the TV and they said ‘Christian Ponder is inactive.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’”
The quarterback who had keyed the Vikings to victory six days earlier wouldn’t be taking the field in the biggest game of his two-year career. Ponder was sidelined by a triceps injury that occurred when he hit Packers safety Morgan Burnett’s helmet last week.
Ponder, who was listed as questionable on the injury report and was limited in practice this week, was out on the field three hours before the game and attempted a handful of passes before calling it a day.
In his place was third-year backup Joe Webb, who became the first quarterback in NFL history to start a postseason game without having thrown a single pass during the year in a regular season game.
“Some of the things we asked (Ponder) to do, he wasn’t very good at getting done and the things we need him to get done if we were going to put him out there,” Vikings’ coach Leslie Frasier said of the decision to go with Webb. “It wasn’t the right thing to do.”
“They did a good job of keeping it under wraps,” Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy admitted. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you I knew Joe Webb was going to play. That’s not the case. We really didn’t adjust our game plan. Our players and coaches did a hell of a job.”
That they did. After allowing Webb and the Vikings to drive 53 yards on their opening possession, which ended with a 33-yard field goal from kicker Blair Walsh, Green Bay’s defense gave up a total of 33 yards the rest of the half.
“We knew him,” Williams said of Webb. “Obviously, he’s been on the team for a while. We knew what he could do. He’s a guy who can run. Obviously, he showed early in the game. He made a couple good runs for his team. Got them in field goal range and put some points on the board. But we wanted to keep him in the pocket from that point on and I think we did a good job of it.”
After the first drive the Packers were also able to turn up the pressure on Webb, who was making his first start since the last week of the 2010 season.
Twice, Webb attempted to throw passes away while Green Bay’s Erik Walden was draped all over him. One of the passes was almost intercepted and the second resulted in an intentional grounding call.
“We wanted to make sure we get pressure,” Walden said. “Make him be a pocket passer. Keep him in the pocket, force him to throw in the pocket. Get pressure and help our guys out on the back end. And we were able to do that.”
At halftime, Webb had completed 3 of 12 passes for 22 yards (39.6 passer rating). Things didn’t get much better early in the second half, primarily because those near-turnovers in the first half became actual turnovers after the intermission.
Already trailing by 24-3 midway through the third quarter, the Vikings were near midfield when outside linebacker Clay Matthews came off the edge, knocked the ball out of Webb’s hand and recovered the fumble.
The following possession, Minnesota was again driving in Green Bay territory when Matthews harassed Webb into an ill-advised deep ball that Sam Shields intercepted.
In total, the defense sacked Webb three times, forced two turnovers and broke up five of his passes. Webb finished the night going 11 of 30 for 180 yards and one touchdown (54.9 passer rating).
The 11 completions were the fewest a Packers’ defense had allowed in a postseason game since giving up seven at Washington in 1972.
The defense’s success came despite not preparing for Webb at all during the week.
"We watched our game film, we had the mindset of thinking Christian Ponder was going to be the quarterback and that was all we knew of until a couple minutes before going out for pregame,” safety Morgan Burnett said. "It’s part of the game of football. You have to be prepared for whatever happens, and you can’t put too much thought into it. You just have to go out and play and execute. "We just stuck with our regular game plan because just as much as Webb scrambled, Ponder has the capability of scrambling as well. Once we found out it was Webb, you just have to go out and play and execute."
Webb’s lack of success was rooted, at least partly, in Green Bay’s ability to slow down Adrian Peterson. The Packers limited the MVP candidate to 99 yards rushing less than one week after he went for 199 yards in the team’s Week 17 matchup.
“No disrespect to Ponder, but bringing a guy into the box is not about Christian Ponder, it’s about one guy and that’s Adrian Peterson,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “Our main focus, we knew whether it was Ponder or Webb, was to keep (Number) 28 (Peterson) from getting off. And if we were going to keep him from getting off, put the ball in the quarterback’s hands, whatever quarterback it was, we felt good about what was going to happen.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.