The Houston Texans’ receiving corps has not been plural through the first two games of 2017.
It’s been DeAndre Hopkins.
The 2013 first-round pick out of Clemson has caught 14 passes for 128 yards and one seam-reading touchdown out of play action for the Texans. Meanwhile, the only other wideout on Houston’s roster to catch a pass this September has been Ohio State quarterback convert Braxton Miller, who’s reeled in two for 10 yards.
It’s a disparity the New England Patriots are likely well-aware of heading into Sunday’s 1 p.m. ET kickoff at Gillette Stadium.
Rookie Deshaun Watson’s favorite option since taking over under center is far from a secret. Hopkins, a 2015 Pro Bowler with two 1,000-yard campaigns on his NFL resume, was the first man Watson targeted when he entered for Tom Savage in the third quarter of the opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
That first pass from Watson to Hopkins on a third-down slant moved the sticks opposite cornerback Jalen Ramsey. And it signified what was to come. No. 4 has seldom looked away from No. 10 over his six quarters of regular-season reps.
Up through last Thursday’s matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals – including plays wiped out by penalties – Hopkins has seen 30 of Watson’s 56 attempts land in his vicinity.
That reliance, even when excluding the flags, still stands as 24 of Watson’s 47 official attempts for 13 completions, 121 yards and the TD.
The bulk of the connections from one Tiger to another have come in the short to intermediate. And while 6-foot-1, 210-pound Hopkins hasn’t broken free downfield to much avail, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien hasn’t drawn that up very often.
It’s been about getting the ball out quick, and minimizing the time in the pocket as well as the mistakes. It’s been about allowing Watson to move the ball with rhythm, both with his legs – seven carries for 83 yards and a touchdown – as well as his arm.
“Athletic player, good poise, has a good arm,” New England head coach Bill Belichick said of Watson his Tuesday conference call, via Patriots.com. “I think he can make all of the throws he needs to make. Obviously, can throw on the run. A really athletic guy.”
“I would say his ability to run the ball, his ability to escape pressure brings just a whole other level of a dynamic to their offense,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told reporters.
That dynamic is still in its early stages. Hopkins’ heavy volume for minimal yardage reflects that. More than half of his receptions from the fleet-footed Watson have netted fewer than nine yards.
A 25-yard pickup over the middle versus zone coverage from Bengals veteran Adam Jones is the outlier in an otherwise conservative tree.
Eight of the receiver’s grabs from Watson have been accrued while running some variation of a comeback, curl or fade-stop. Two more have been accrued on out patterns.
It isn’t hard to understand why Hopkins, a route-runner of great precision with the body control to erase inaccurate throws, has operated in such a manner. It isn’t hard to understand why he has quickly become Watson’s best friend, either. The way the fifth-year pro gains separation with friction as he boxes out and leans back the ball certainly helps.
The way he negotiates the boundary as well as anyone in the league does, too.
“I'd say again, just in general with their offense I want to make sure this doesn't go unnoticed,” added Patricia, “but obviously they have one of the best wide receivers in the league with Hopkins.”
But there’ve been no deep posts, corners, or fly routes that have ended in linkages between them. Perhaps all of that will come in time as Hopkins serves as the mast to Watson’s developmental sail.
For now, the Texans’ passing tendencies figure to work in the Patriots’ favor.
WATSON-TO-HOPKINS COMPLETIONS BY ROUTE
Slant: one catch for seven yards
Comeback, curl or fade-stop: eight catches for 68 yards
Out: two catches for 16 yards
Seam: one catch for four yards, touchdown
Over: one catch for 25 yards
A defense that’s been uncharacteristically subject to explosive plays thus far into 2017, expect New England to force Watson elsewhere with either Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe or Malcolm Butler jamming from the cornerback spot, and big-nickel safety Duron Harmon scanning overhead. If the defense succeeds in that gameplan, expect Watson’s outlet pass-catcher to be third-down back Tyler Ervin, who checks in having collected six receptions on nine throws for 32 yards from the 12th overall pick in April’s draft. Perhaps he’ll draw the attention of strong safety Patrick Chung on angle and flat routes.
But it’s a process of elimination for Belichick and Patricia this week. Hopkins, along with a bit of Ervin, have accounted for 19 of Watson’s 27 completions to this point and for 70 percent of his aerial yards.
Do you try to blanket the former and let the latter try his luck underneath? Do you see if Watson finds openings from those further down the batting order, and for more than single digits downfield? Do you let him throw on the run?
We’ll find out Sunday.
Watson has gone 2-of-4 for the aforementioned 10 yards when targeting Braxton Miller, and 4-of-4 for 56 yards when dropping it down to starting running back Lamar Miller. He’s gone 2-of-5 for 13 yards and an interception when turning to tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz – now on injured reserve – and the hybrid Stephen Anderson.
And his lone pass not nullified by penalty to receiver Bruce Ellington fell incomplete.