FOXBORO, Mass. — Few NFL wide receivers command more respect from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick than DeAndre Hopkins does.
The Patriots typically shadow the Houston Texans wide receiver with a cornerback and provide help over the top with a safety. Of the Texans’ 44 dropbacks in their Week 3 visit to New England, the Patriots only had one player focused on Hopkins six times. Otherwise, the Patriots were in Cover-2, Cover-2 man or Cover-1 with the safety shifted over to Hopkins’ side.
Hopkins should expect the same treatment Saturday night when the Texans come to Gillette Stadium for their divisional-round playoff game against the Patriots. But why does the 6-foot-1, 215-pound receiver demand double coverage more than most NFL receivers?
“I’d say the big thing for him is his hands and his catch radius,” Belichick said Tuesday. “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 when it’s thrown there. He’s a tough guy to bring down after the catch. He has good size. …
“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, he still catches a lot of balls like Larry does.”
If Hopkins still is making catches with one player in solid coverage, then it makes sense to also focus a safety on the wideout. The Patriots’ method has worked in three matchups against Hopkins, who has nine catches on 19 targets for 185 yards without a touchdown. Hopkins, in his career, averages 15 catches for 210 yards with a touchdown in a three-game span.
Hopkins finished second in the NFL in first-down catches on third down this season with 25, meaning he excels in key situations.
“You see he’s been targeted a lot on third downs,” Belichick said. “As much as any receiver in the league, he’s had a lot of third-down production. Think that pretty much says it all right there, key possession of the ball. The guy gets more balls thrown to him than just about anybody in the league, catches more than pretty much anyone in the league. I’d say that kind of defines a go-to player, be it for the Texans or really league-wide, just the fact that they 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’ve got good tight ends, they’ve got other good receivers, yet he gets a lot of targets.”
Expect cornerback Logan Ryan to shadow Hopkins on Saturday, with plenty of help from deep safeties Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty. Despite the Texans’ issues at quarterback this season, the Patriots will take Hopkins and Houston’s passing game very seriously.
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