The New England Patriots have faced some talented wide receivers this year, but DeAndre Hopkins might stand above them all. The Houston Texans’ number one pass catcher, after all, is among the most productive offensive players in the NFL: through 11 games this season, he has caught 81 passes thrown his way (second most in the NFL) for 839 yards (11th) and six touchdowns (6th) — clearly leading his team in the first two categories.
Needless to say that slowing down Houston’s eighth-ranked scoring offense this season, starts not just with quarterback Deshaun Watson but also with taking away his favorite target — a plan the Patriots used last week when they used their top cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, to erase Amari Cooper from the equation. Gilmore is again expected to line up on the other side of the opponents’ best wideout, but the challenge will be a difficult one.
“I think he defines an NFL receiver,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about Hopkins. “If you open ‘NFL receiver’ in the dictionary, put his picture next to it. He gets open, he catches the ball. Doesn’t matter what the route is, doesn’t matter what the coverage is, doesn’t matter where the ball’s thrown or what the situation — 1st and 10, 4th and goal — he’s very, very productive. And he has such a variety of skills and routes, he can really do it all.”
Belichick knows what he is talking about, not just because he is the best coach in football and as good a talent evaluator as the league has ever seen. The future Hall of Famer also already had to prepare for Hopkins six times since the talented pass catcher entered the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 2013. And so far, Belichick and his defenses have gotten the better of the two-time first-team All-Pro selection — or at least have held him in check.
Hopkins was targeted a combined 47 times during his previous meetings with the Patriots, and caught 30 passes for 404 yards. The numbers are certainly solid, but he has yet to score a touchdown against New England’s defense. Furthermore, Houston’s quarterbacks have thrown five interceptions when targeting him — one of which caught by Gilmore in Week 3 of the 2017 season — which adds up to a passer rating of just 51.5.
Every game and season is different, however, and Hopkins certainly capable of making big and game-deciding plays as Belichick pointed out earlier this week: “He was great then, he’s great now. I’d say they move him around a lot more now than they did before. He’s in the slot, he’s in motion, he’s not always on the weak side. He’s there some but they put him in different spots and they do a good job of making it tough for you to cover him.”
“He’s got tremendous ball skills, he’s long, great judgment, great timing to go up and get the ball. Makes some extended catches that I don’t know how many guys other than him could make them,” New England’s head coach continued. “He’s got good hands, good timing, strong hands, as you said. He creates separation with his quickness, his physical size, his length. He’s really never covered because there’s always some place you can put the ball where he can catch it and he has the hands to catch it.”
Belichick went on to label Hopkins as “clearly one of the top guys in the league” that “gets a lot of coverage and still has an enormous amount of production.” The Patriots’ secondary, which has shut down opposing passing attacks on a weekly basis this season but has missed two starters — Gilmore and safety Patrick Chung — during Wednesday’s practice because of an illness, will have its hands full when it comes to containing Hopkins.
Doing that successfully, however, would be a big accomplishment towards beating the AFC South leaders and improving to 11-1 on the year.