NFL players who consider themselves elite player at their position must hate going against Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
One of Belichick’s many strengths as a head coach is game-planning around a team’s top talent and rendering them ineffective. And if the Patriots don’t game plan around you? Well, Belichick must not think that highly of you.
There’s no better example of Belichick’s ability to eliminate a top player than a Week 13 matchup against the Houston Texans last season, when the Patriots limited star receiver DeAndre Hopkins to three catches on six targets for 52 yards without a score.
Hopkins averaged seven catches, 12 targets and 95 yards per game last season. His three catches were a season-low and he only had less than 52 yards twice in 2015.
So, how did the Patriots take out Hopkins? Logan Ryan followed him around for 27 of the Texans’ 30 dropbacks, and there typically was a safety over the top keeping a close eye on Hopkins. The Patriots used Cover-1 man on 14 plays, Cover-3 zone on nine plays, and they dropped two safeties deep, either in a Cover-2 or quarters, on seven plays.
But Ryan was key in stopping Hopkins. He allowed just one 40-yard reception on four targets to Hopkins and had two pass breakups. Belichick explained why Ryan is the right choice to cover bigger wideouts.
“I think Logan has very good playing strength, and although he’s not as big as some of those guys he still has decent size and playing strength and instincts,” Belichick said Monday in a conference call. “I mean he’s a very instinctive player. I’d say he has a good understanding of what those guys are going to try and do versus what a smaller, quicker receiver would try to do. He does a good job. He’s a very good technique player. Those big receivers — if they want to be physical and push off — have to have something to push off against, so by using good techniques to try and minimize the amount of getting open physically that those guys can do.”
Ryan’s first breakup in last season’s game came on a crossing route, when he stayed with Hopkins (bottom of the screen) stride for stride over the middle and knocked away the ball with ease.
Ryan showed off some nice closing speed on his second pass breakup, when Hopkins (bottom of the screen) started to pull away on a post corner route. Ryan knocked away the ball at the last second.
The Patriots showed how seriously they took Hopkins (bottom of the screen) in the red zone when Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan lined up on either side of him and doubled him on fourth and 4 with 9:01 left in the third quarter. He went untargeted on the play.
Ryan finally was beat by Hopkins (top of the screen) on a deep route when safety help was late coming over the top.
Ryan said after the game he watched every one of Hopkins’ routes from 2015 leading up to that game. If he covers Hopkins again, he’ll likely need the same level of preparation.
This year is a little bit more difficult, however, because the Texans selected wide receiver Will Fuller in the 2016 NFL Draft. Fuller actually has outproduced Hopkins through two weeks this season.
Fuller has nine catches for 211 yards with a touchdown to Hopkins’ 12 receptions for 167 yards with two scores.
“Fuller’s been playing lights out these first few games,” Harmon said. “You really don’t expect too much like this from a rookie, but he’s been making great catches, spreading the field for them, so you can’t maybe show too much over DeAndre’s side now, because you have to respect Fuller on the other side. It’s definitely going to be a challenge with those two guys.”
Our best guess is Ryan will cover Hopkins with safety help over the top while Malcolm Butler attempts to take out Fuller. The Patriots might need multiple safeties to provide assistance, however. Fortunately for the Patriots, Harmon and Devin McCourty are two of the better deep safeties in the NFL.
Thumbnail photo via Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports Images