The Houston Texans do not have the most productive skill players on offense. RB Lamar Miller has produced on sheer volume of touches, but ranks last in the NFL in rushing yards after contact. WR DeAndre Hopkins is an elite talent, but the lack of supporting cast makes it easier for defenses to devote their resources to stopping him.
Just don’t tell that to the Patriots.
Texans WR Will Fuller “is extremely fast,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “You’re talking [about] a guy who can hit a home run ball at any time. Deep balls or catch-and-run plays, he can do a great job of just running away from defenders. He does an excellent job of tracking the ball in the air. They’ll get him the ball in the quick game whether it’s a screen or something like that. They’ll throw the ball out to him and just let him be in space and that’s the most dangerous place you can be. If he has the ball in space with room to work then you have a problem. If he can get behind the defense and get downfield and they can throw it up to him then there’s a problem. So his speed, his quickness, his ability to run with the ball, those are things that are just very explosive plays that their offense takes advantage of.”
“Their tight ends are making a lot more plays now than the first time we played them,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty added about C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin.
Fuller ranks third on the Texans with 632 yards from scrimmage, but over half of that production came in the first quarter of the regular season. Fiedorowicz had 2 receptions for 7 yards total over the first three games of the season, but has averaged over 7 targets and nearly 50 yards per game since he was held to 0 yards against the Patriots.
And then there’s Hopkins, who head coach Belichick compares to Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald.
“I would say the big thing for [Hopkins] is his hands and his catch radius,” Belichick said. “Kind of, even when he’s covered, he’s not covered. He can reach and catch the ball somewhere where the defender can’t quite get it if it’s thrown there. He’s a tough guy to bring down after the catch. He’s got good size. He’s been targeted a lot on third down as much as any receiver in the league. He’s had a lot of third down production, so I think that pretty much says it all right there. He keeps possession of the ball.
“The guy gets more balls thrown to him than just about anybody in the league and catches more than just about anybody in the league. I would say that kind of defines a go-to player, whether it be for the Texans or really league-wide. Just the fact that you go to him that much, and they have other good players too, it’s not like he’s the only guy. They’ve got good backs, they have good tight ends, they’ve got other good receivers, yet he gets a lot of targets. But he’s got great hands – great hands, length, timing, like a [Larry] Fitzgerald type of player. Even when you’re on him, he still catches a lot of them. He’s got guys draped all over him and still catches a lot of balls like Larry does.”
Fitzgerald is one of the players that Belichick praises endlessly, so this is not a throwaway comment. Hopkins is that talented and Houston has been finding new ways to get him involved.
“I would say with [Hopkins] also you’re going to see him in some different positions maybe than you saw him in the early part of the year,” Patricia said. “They’ll put him inside, they’ll put him outside. [He’s] just a huge target for them – great hands, very strong, explosive player. The ability for them to move him around a little bit adds a whole other dimension to their offense from that standpoint, and I would say the tight ends, too.”
Hopkins is going to be a key for the Texans success on Saturday and former Patriots LB Matt Chatham has issued a video on how to best remove Hopkins from the game.
Texans QB Brock Osweiler has used inside and outside breaking routes to get the ball to Hopkins, depending on the safety position. If there is one deep safety, Osweiler will try to hit Hopkins on the sideline. If there are two deep safeties, then Hopkins might run an in-cut, or Osweiler won’t look in his direction.
Osweiler is willing to take chances with 50-50 jump balls in Hopkins direction, so the Patriots will have to capitalize on those opportunities. If the New England defense can confuse Osweiler and eliminate the easy if-then coverage decisions (if single high, then throw outside), the Patriots will go a long way to stopping the Texans offense in its tracks.