Taylor Heinicke was pressured often in the Minnesota Vikings’ preseason finale, but he played well in stating his case for a roster spot. Plus, more than two dozen notes that help tell the tale of the Vikings’ 24-17 loss.
When he was brought into the Vikings as an undrafted free agent from Old Dominion, Taylor Heinicke
was among many college quarterbacks added to NFL rosters – he had a chip-and-a-chair chance to make the roster and all he was looking for was an opportunity.
As training camp and the preseason wore on, Heinicke kept finding himself on the field and making an impression. Of the 164 passes that Vikings quarterbacks threw in the preseason, Heinicke accounted for half of them – completing 57 of 82 passes for 516 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 89.3.
The Vikings thought enough of him to make Mike Kafka
an early cut, sending Heinicke into Thursday’s 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans
as the starter and the player who would go all four quarters.
Heinicke did his part, completing 27 of 41 passes for 279 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 101.6. Those numbers are impressive at garbage time, but Heinicke’s performance came against a Titans team that started it regulars and played its second team throughout the first half, while the Vikings pulled all of their significant starters on offense before the game started.
By his own admission, when he took the field in the Hall of Fame Game, Heinicke was a victim of information overload and felt a bit overwhelmed in the process. Four games later, he has seen his own maturation in the Norv Turner offense as taught to him by quarterbacks coach Scott Turner. With Teddy Bridgewater
and Shaun Hill
providing additional support, Heinicke sees his growth as a quarterback increasing exponentially.
“I could tell a huge difference from the Steelers until now,” Heinicke said. “I feel like I’m getting comfortable in the offense and I’m knowing what to do – starting to play the playbook. Hopefully, I’m here for this season and get even more comfortable and be on the Vikings.”
While the Vikings didn’t win the game, head coach Mike Zimmer said it wasn’t Heinicke’s fault. He was often on the move and running for his livelihood because his blocking was inconsistent. If anything, Heinicke made more points than he might have had he merely been a game manager in a Vikings win.
“He got rocked a few times,” Zimmer said. “Pass protection was poor and he got hammered a few times. He shook it off and went back to work. That was impressive to me.”
There is considerable debate about how the Vikings are going to constitute their 53-man roster. One thought has it that they will go with two quarterbacks (Bridgewater and Hill) on the active roster and hope to slip Heinicke through on waivers to the practice squad.
To his credit, Heinicke has done everything in his power to make the last position cut come somewhere other than quarterback. He’s put it on film, as they say in NFL parlance. If it isn’t enough for the Vikings, Tyler Thigpen
taught a previous regime that you don’t get cute on cut-down day in hopes of sliding a player through waivers.
The world is watching.
For the next couple of days, Heinicke’s NFL career will remain in limbo. He has done what he can to make the team. It would be hard to dispute that he hasn’t earned his spot on the roster, with the exclamation point coming against a Titans team that put forth a much more concerted effort to win than the Vikings did.
Good and bad from Vikings' bubble players
But, for now, he doesn’t know what the future holds for him. What he does know is that the last four months have been an education in Norv Turner’s offense. The next four months could be a graduate course – even if he never sees the field.
His future is out of his control for now. He knows that. He also knows he’s done everything he can to wear purple with pride.
“That’s not in my hands,” Heinicke said. “That’s in their hands. It’s their decision. I’ve had a great ride from (organized team activities) until now. I’ve learned a lot. I think I’ve grown as a quarterback. I hope to be here. I want to be here learning from Teddy and Shaun and Scott and Norv. I think they’re the best in the business. Hopefully, I’m here for that and continue to be on the Vikings.”
GAME NIGHT NOTES
The Vikings had a whopping 29 players that did not play in Thursday’s game, including their top two quarterbacks, their top three running backs, their top three wide receivers, their entire offensive line, their entire starting defensive line, linebackers Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr and three starting defensive backs.
By contrast, the Titans had just 11 players who didn’t play and more than half of those were the result of injuries.
The loss was the first of Mike Zimmer’s head coaching career in the preseason. He finished last preseason with a 4-0 record and had won the first four games this preseason before Thursday’s loss.
The Vikings struggled on the ground all night long. They ran just 18 times for 60 yards, but those numbers don’t tell the entire story. Heinicke had 21 yards on two rushes to pad some bad numbers. Dominique Williams had just 24 yards on nine carries and DuJuan Harris managed just 15 yards on seven carries.
The Titans ran the ball twice as often as the Vikings, rushing 36 times for 142 yards.
Marcus Mariota looked sharp in his only series, completing 2 of 3 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown, posting a gaudy passer rating of 149.3.
The four Tennessee quarterbacks combined to complete 16 of 25 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns for a team passer rating of 130.0.
Stefon Diggs had the game of the night for the Vikings, despite an early fumble. He was targeted nine times and caught eight passes for 85 yards and a touchdown.
Diggs also helped make his case to make the final roster by taking his only punt-return opportunity for 29 yards – the third game in which he has produced a significant punt return.
In the third quarter, Marcus Sherels, who has likely made the roster as a punt returner, had a critical fumble deep in Vikings territory that would lead to a Titans field goal.
Whether something should be made out of it or not, wide receiver Adam Thielen was on the field for the opening drive before being told his night was over, yet Cordarrelle Patterson was playing well into the game.
The team stats couldn’t have been much closer. The Vikings gained 333 yards to Tennessee’s 332, both teams had 18 first downs and the Titans ran 63 plays to the Vikings’ 61.
For a game played primarily by backups, there were only 11 penalties – five on the Vikings for 40 yards and six on the Titans for 51 yards.
As if often the case, turnovers kill and the Vikings had both of the game’s turnovers – the Diggs fumble early and the Sherels fumble in the third quarter. The Titans turned those two miscues into 10 points.
Blair Walsh continued his struggles, missing a 48-yard field goal early and having a couple of other kicks – a field goal and an extra point – that barely snuck inside the upright. After the game, Zimmer emphasized his confidence in Walsh, saying, “Blair is our kicker. He needs to make those, but Blair is our kicker.”
The game was fast-moving thanks in part to long drives that permeated the game, which took just two hours, 52 minutes. In the first quarter, the Vikings had a 13-play drive that ate up 6:42 of the game clock. In the second quarter, Tennessee had a marathon drive of 14 plays that took a whopping 8:31 off the clock. In the third quarter into the fourth, the Titans had a 12-play, 94-yard drive that consumed 7:01.
Ironically, the three long drives resulted in just seven points. The long Vikings drive ended with Walsh’s missed field goal and the second-quarter drive died without points when Tennessee went on fourth down with a run that was blown up by safety Andrew Sendejo and turned the ball over on downs.
The Vikings got a pair of sacks from players looking to work their way onto the field for the Minnesota defense – defensive end Brandon Watts and defensive end Scott Crichton.
The Titans had just one play of 20 yards or more, but it was a killer – a 59-yard touchdown pass from Mariota to Harry Douglas on the game’s opening drive.
Rookie offensive lineman Tyrus Thompson suffered a head injury in the first half and underwent concussion protocol in the Vikings locker room. Following the game, Zimmer declined to comment on his status.
Dominique Williams might not make the final roster, but his sweet one-handed, in-stride touchdown catch and run will likely get the attention of a lot of NFL decision-makers if he isn’t in Minnesota.
The play of the game, according to the NFL, didn’t count. On an extra point attempt by the Titans, the snap sailed high. Kicker Ryan Succop corralled the ball and launched a desperation pass that was caught over the shoulder Willie Mays-style by defensive tackle Angelo Blackson. But the bizarre play was nullified by a penalty on long snapper Beau Brinkley, who was called for being ineligibly downfield after his errant snap created the chaos that ensued. Perhaps Cullen Loeffler should be around his phone over the weekend.
Michael Mauti is a player on the bubble, but, after blocking a punt with five minutes to play that would eventually lead to a Vikings touchdown, he’s going to make the Vikings’ decision on who stays and who goes Saturday a little more difficult if he entered Thursday on the outside of the 53-man roster projection.
The Vikings missed out on a piece of history with Thursday’s loss. They had a chance to finish the preseason 5-0, which hasn’t been done since the 1997 Steelers, who finished that season 11-5.
It wasn’t an ideal night for the Vikings to be shorthanded with 29 guys who didn’t play. The game-time temperature was 90 degrees.