NASHVILLE- Each time Taylor Heinicke pulled himself off the turf at Nissan Stadium on Thursday night — and it happened often — he earned the respect of coach Mike Zimmer. It also didn’t hurt that the rookie quarterback from Old Dominion tossed a pair of touchdown passes and nearly rallied the Vikings back from a 14-point deficit in a 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Heinicke and the Vikings came up short in the closing seconds when he was sacked on fourth down. But Heinicke could be rewarded for his efforts when the Vikings unveil their 53-man roster on Saturday afternoon. Zimmer wouldn’t say if Heinicke had earned a spot on the team, but he was very complimentary of his performance.
“He’s tough now. He’s a tough kid. He hung in there. He got back [up]. He had good control of the offense. He made some good throws in the two-minute drill at the end,” Zimmer said. “There was a lot of things that happened throughout the course of the game where he showed that he’s got something to him.”
Heinicke, who already had outdueled the now-released Mike Kafka to establish himself as the third-best quarterback on the roster, got the start, played all four quarters and made a convincing case to make the cut. He completed 27 of his 41 attempts for 279 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 21 yards.
“I’ve had a great ride from OTAs until now,” Heinicke said. “I learned a lot, and I think I’ve grown as a quarterback, and I hope to be here and I want to be here and keep learning.”
Beyond the decision about a third quarterback, there was little intrigue left when it came to the construction of the Vikings roster entering Thursday night.
The starting lineup on offense has been set in stone for weeks. Most of the starters on defense were determined even before that. With final roster cuts looming Saturday afternoon, the Vikings already had a pretty good idea of who their 53 men would be.
But there were still a few decisions left to be made heading into Thursday night.
One starting spot that remained undecided was at middle linebacker, where Gerald Hodges got his second straight start in the base defense after moving over from outside linebacker. Hodges made one tackle in about a quarter of work before making way for rookie Eric Kendricks, his main competitor for the starting gig.
Kendricks made four tackles, but Hodges believes that he has earned a job.
“I’m pretty confident at this point right now,” he said. “It just depends where.”
Robert Blanton was the only other first-team defender to start against the Titans. While Zimmer has yet to declare a winner in the competition to start alongside Harrison Smith, it seems obvious that it will be Blanton. He started all five preseason games and has gotten the vast majority of first-team practice reps.
The Vikings quickly fell behind by two scores Thursday night, with two Titans quarterbacks throwing touchdown passes in the first eight minutes of the game.
On the opening drive, rookie Marcus Mariota, the second overall pick in April’s draft, hit Titans receiver Harry Douglas with a short pass and he took it from there, veering up the right sideline and breaking a diving tackle attempt by safety Andrew Sendejo before completing the 59-yard touchdown reception.
The Titans got the ball right back when rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs fumbled while extending the ball in a failed attempt to pick up a first down. Tennessee took advantage of the short field with Zach Mettenberger tossing a 3-yard touchdown pass to receiver Rico Richardson to put the Titans up 14-0.
The Vikings didn’t get on the board until late in the first half when kicker Blair Walsh, who missed from 48 yards earlier, split the uprights from 33 yards out.
The Vikings pulled within four points early in the third quarter when Heinicke threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to running back Dominique Williams.
Later in the quarter, a muffed punt by returner Marcus Sherels led to a Titans field goal. A one-yard receiving touchdown by Titans tight end Phillip Supernaw in the fourth quarter put the Vikings up, 24-10, and Heinicke and the Vikings couldn’t catch up.
With most of the starters, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson, not suiting up, second-stringers and third-stringers got extended playing time in the last chance for some to impress the coaching staff.
“A few guys stood out — good and bad,” said Zimmer, who was disappointed by the team’s performance overall.
Watts recorded a sack and six tackles in the first half but got blocked out of the play on Douglas’ touchdown catch. Diggs had a game-high eight catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.