MINNEAPOLIS - Anyone uncertain why Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren has stuck to his gut feeling and kept Seneca Wallace at quarterback instead of utilizing his athleticism elsewhere, need only to have watched the Hawks first preseason game Friday night.
To be sure, the 62,545 at the Metrodome saw why.
On a night highlighted by the Seahawks' ballhawks - forcing five fumbles and recovering four, plus an interception - it was Wallace's continued growth at quarterback that was apparent from the time he entered the game until they put the Minnesota Vikings away with a 34-17 victory. Sure, Matt Hasselbeck started and was nearly perfect in his two series to set the tone and the running game showed quickly, but Wallace took over and never missed a beat, putting the game away a couple of minutes into the fourth quarter.
Wallace finished 15-of-20 passing for 165 yards, with touchdown passes of 15 yards to Jeb Putzier, 7 yards to Trent Shelton and 1 yard to Joel Filani, before giving way to Charlie Frye early in the fourth quarter. Olindo Mare converted all four of his extra points, along with field goals of 21 and 20 yards. The Seahawks amassed 419 yards and 25 first downs, compared to 298 yards and 18 first downs for the Vikings.
"I've said it all along, (Wallace) is a good player," Holmgren said. "He feels very comfortable ... throws the ball very well. So he doesn't do anything I don't expect. In fact, I'm pretty hard on him when he makes a mistake. I like him, obviously."
The rookies played particularly well on defense, forcing three of the four recovered fumbles. Linebacker David Hawthorne forced two fumbles and defensive end Lawrence Jackson forced another - all three in the second half. Hawthorne also had five tackles, while veteran defensive end Jason Babin had four, including a sack and a fumble recovery. Additionally, veteran defensive tackle Howard Green had a stunning stat line with five tackles, two sacks, a quarterback hurry, a pass defense, a forced fumble, and he intercepted a deflected pass to end the game.
In the second half, the Vikings had just 87 yards and seven first downs, most of which came on a meaningless final drive when the Metrodome was empty. The game started off with very little defense from either team, and that was enough to give Holmgren and his staff something to coach up in the future.
"You like to win the first game to feel pretty good and we did that," Holmgren said. "But also, they can't feel real great, we made a number of errors that we can coach to. But that's kind of what you want in a first game. If you can win the game, but still have some pretty good meetings, there are some areas of the team that I expected a little bit more. We didn't get it and we'll address it. But that's good." .
Just as it was scripted, Hasselbeck marched the Seahawks right down the field following the opening kickoff, with a seven-play, 76-yard drive, capped off by an 18-yard touchdown pass to second-year wide receiver Jordan Kent - despite defensive offsides and holding. Mare converted the extra point, and just 3:17 into the game, the Seahawks had a 7-0 lead.
The tempo of the drive was vintage Hasselbeck, who was 4-of-5 on the drive for 52 yards, with the other key play a 20-yard run by Mo Morris on a draw play with a key block by young center Steve Vallos.
"(Tempo) was one of the things we had talked about," Hasselbeck said. "Those guys are big and physical up front. They can disguise well; they've got veteran safeties. One of the things that was going to help us was to not wait around, just go at the speed we like to practice."
"The hardest part is for the offensive line. We really don't game plan for these preseason games, so we study no film. When you consider all those things we did a nice job and our defense just kept creating turnovers for us."
But he wasn't done, either. Three plays into the Vikings ensuing possession, Visanthe Shiancoe caught a 10-yard pass from Tarvaris Jackson and was sandwiched by Lofa Tatupu and Brandon Mebane. Leroy Hill forced the fumble from behind and Deon Grant recovered the ball for the Seahawks on the Minnesota 43.
Once again, Morris got loose - this time for 21 yards, and Hasselbeck followed that up with a 10-yard pass to tight end Will Heller to the Minnesota 12. The Vikings defense stiffened this time, breaking up a screen to Morris for just 1 yard, and nailed him for a 1-yard gain on a draw. Hasselbeck dumped a pass to Leonard Weaver just inside the 10 and he bulled his way to the 3, just short of the yard-marker on third down. Mare came on to boot the 21-yard field goal and it was 10-0 with 7:14 left in the first quarter.
And that was it for Hasselbeck, completing 7-of-8 for 70 yards and the touchdown pass to Kent.
Seahawks rookie Brandon Coutu boomed the ball 1-yard deep into the end zone on the kickoff, and Darius Reynaud responded by busting it right up the gut of the Seahawks kickoff team and Coutu made the tackle on the Seahawks 49. Five plays later, Jackson hit Thomas Tapeh in the flat on a sprint-out and he carried it the final 6 yards for the score, cutting the margin to 10-7.
That didn't slow the Seahawks momentum, nor did Wallace replacing Hasselbeck, as he engineered an 8-play, 71-yard touchdown drive right out of the chute. Wallace completed all three of his passes for 33 yards, including the 15-yard touchdown pass to Jeb Putzier.
The diversity of the offense had the Vikings defense reeling. Morris added runs of 9 and 7 yards, with T.J. Duckett blasting 7 yards on a third-and-1 with Weaver blocking, and Courtney Taylor ran 13-yards on an end around. But just as significant was the block from Julius Jones on blitzing linebacker Heath Farwell on the touchdown pass that bought Wallace time to find Putzier.
On this night, though, the 17-7 lead wouldn't last long. Jackson answered with a 68-yard drive, the big plays a 28-yard pass to Bobby Wade, and a 23-yard interference call on Marcus Trufant that put the ball on the Seahawks 1. The defense held on the first two runs by Chester Taylor, and Julian Peterson met him in mid-air on the third, but it was ruled a touchdown - slicing the Seahawks advantage to 17-14 with 12:31 left in the half. That ended Jackson's night.
The Vikings added a field goal late in the half, sending the two teams into the locker room deadlocked at 17.
Considering that defenses usually start faster than offenses, it was a surprising first half, with each team ringing up a dozen first downs, and the Vikings ringing up 218 total yards to the Seahawks 209. Reggie Hodges punted just twice for the Seahawks, averaging 47 yards and the Vikings didn't punt at all. Wallace was 5-of-7 passing for 44 yards in the half, with plenty more where that came from.
Most important, were the 95 yards rushing yards in the first half, led by Morris with 62 yards on just 6 carries and the reconstructed offensive line against the fierce Vikings front.
"The guys that were running were happy, the guys blocking were happy and the coaches were happy with it," said Morris, who didn't play in the second half. "We're just trying to be consistent with the running game. We've been working together since the offseason - the offensive line and the backs as a group. We kind of know what to do and what to expect and how to get things going early."
The Vikings received the second half kickoff, and on the second play from scrimmage Hawthorne unloaded on running back Eric Young, forcing a fumble and Kevin Hobbs, who led the team with six tackles, recovered on the Minnesota 32. It appeared Duckett fumbled the ball right back, but a personal foul was called on the Vikings' Letroy Guion - giving the Hawks the ball on the Minnesota 9.
Two plays later, Wallace hit free agent wide receiver Trent Shelton with a 7-yard bullet for the score, putting the Seahawks back up on top, 24-17.
Hawthorne forced another fumble later in the quarter, collaborating with rookie safety Jamar Adams, and Lance Laury recovered on the Minnesota 31. Wallace responded by completing all four of his passes - the big one a beautiful diving catch by rookie Michael Bumpus for 16 yards to the 1-yard line. Wallace then hit Joel Filani on a play action pass for the score. Mare's fourth extra point of the night made it 31-17 with 4:45 left in the third quarter. To that point, Wallace was 12-of-16 for 116 yards and 3 touchdown passes.
A fourth fumble gave the Seahawks the ball late in the third quarter, when top draft choice Jackson gobbled up rookie quarterback John David Booty - his former teammate at Southern Cal- and Babin recovered it on the Seattle 34. Wallace again drove the Hawks up the field - the big play a 23-yard catch and run by rookie fullback Owen Schmitt on a play-action swing pass to the Minnesota 22. This time they couldn't get into the end zone, however, and settle for Mare's field goal to raise the margin to ultimate 34-17 difference.
That would be enough to start chasing the sellout crowd to the exits, and Wallace went to the bench for the remaining 12 minutes of the game, once again proving that he deserves the right to be a quarterback in this system, and is invaluable as the backup.
"It was a good first preseason game for us , even the young receivers came in and worked hard," Wallace said. "We did some good things on the offensive side of the ball, but also some things that we can clean up as well."
"My main thing is to keep working hard because (Holmgren) stuck with me through thick and thin when I first came into the league when everybody was saying I couldn't play. And he was the one saying, 'You're a quarterback.' (It's) a lot of work, but it's been good."
And getting better.