It’s always a good time to imagine a team’s number one wide receiver and another team’s number one corner duking it out for 60 minutes. Just check out the top-notch matchups football fans have been treated to already this year:
AJ Green vs. Darrelle Revis
(note: Revis Island is currently second to only Isla Nublar in the "What could possibly go wrong?" department)
Dez Bryant vs. Josh Norman
Mike Evans vs. Patrick Peterson
Antonio Brown vs. Josh Norman
(note: actually, wait, that didn’t really end up happening. Ask whoever coordinates Washington’s defense about it.)
In Bill Belichick’s mind, though, unless you have a corner that’s Darrelle-Revis-in-his-prime good, just throwing your best corner in man coverage on the other team’s best wide receiver usually isn’t going to cut it when said wide receiver is a human highlight reel like DeAndre Hopkins.
So last year, when they went down to Houston to play the Texans, featuring DeAndre Hopkins and a bunch of dudes at quarterback, New England devised a plan to keep the man who goes by "Nuk" out of the game as much as possible. At the time, Hopkins had 1,221 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. The man was just on fire – only Antonio Brown and Julio Jones had more receiving yards at that point.
Back to New England’s defensive game plan to slow DeAndre down, though – it was brutally simple, but effective. Put Logan Ryan in coverage, and have a safety helping Ryan out over the top on pretty much every play.
Here’s what NESN said about the game plan to double-team Hopkins last fall:
"Credit mostly goes out to Logan Ryan, the cornerback who shadowed Hopkins for most of the game and individually allowed one catch for 40 yards on four targets with two pass breakups. Credit also goes out to Belichick, who game-planned to bracket Hopkins with a safety over the top on many plays. Final praise goes out to safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, both of whom provided Ryan with a security blanket."
And here’s Belichick’s assessment of that strategy after the game:
"I mean, Hopkins made a great play down the sideline. He’s a good receiver. It’s tough. We obviously played a lot of double coverage on him, but we did a good job battling…you’ve got to double Hopkins. Big receiver, strong hands, he’s kind of always open because of his size, his length, and his catching radius."
So the double-team worked out about as well as the Patriots could hope last time they played Houston. Here’s where it gets trickier this year – the Texans spent a whole lot this year upgrading their wide receivers, their offensive line, and running game.
I mean, just look at this year’s draft:
Round 1: Will Fuller, WR (Notre Dame)
Round 2: Nick Martin, OG (Notre Dame)
Round 3: Braxton Miller, WR (Ohio State)
Round 4: Tyler Ervin, RB (San Jose State)
And let’s not forget the Brock Osweiler, Jeff Allen, and Lamar Miller signings.
Will Fuller, who ran the 40 at the combine in a cool 4.32 seconds, already has 211 yards and a touchdown this season. Braxton Miller hasn’t done a whole lot yet – 2 catches for 9 yards – but you can bet New England can’t afford to ignore a guy with his talent. Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong, who was a 2015 third-round pick, also chipped in 161 yards and 3 touchdowns last year, although he’s been mostly riding the bench this year.
Compare that with last year’s Texans, where the receivers not named DeAndre Hopkins were Cecil Shorts III, Jaelen Strong, and Nate Washington. New England basically gambled that it was worth trying to make those guys beat them, as long as Hopkins got locked down on Ryan & McCourty Island.
Whatever the Patriots defense plans on doing this time, they’ve got three days to figure it out. Houston rolls into town on Thursday, and they’re sitting pretty at 2-0.
And if you were expecting a snarky joke about Houston playing in a JV division, neither of their wins were against AFC South teams.