NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Most teams have a difficult time defending Houston Texans All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who seems to produce monster numbers no matter who is playing quarterback. His 13 touchdown receptions led the NFL last season; this season, he is on pace to surpass 100 receptions, 1,500 yards and 12 TDs.
But no team has been abused by Hopkins more than the Tennessee Titans, who travel to Houston for a Monday Night Football matchup.
Hopkins’ 72 catches for 1,120 yards and 298 yards after the catch against Tennessee are by far his best totals in those categories against an opponent, and his seven touchdown catches against the Titans are tied for his most versus a foe (he also has seven scores against the Kansas City Chiefs).
His best performance against the Titans came in Week 13 of the 2014 season, when he exploded for nine receptions, a career-best 238 yards and two touchdowns.
“He is just a dog,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said. “I enjoy competing with him because he’s one of those guys that you just know you are going to get a dog every time. He’s not going to take a play off. He’s a competitive spirit, and I love how he plays the game. It’s the same way I want to play the game myself.”
Because of the level of trust Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has in Hopkins, he’ll throw him the ball even when he’s covered.
“Time after time, he just continues to prove that regardless if he’s wide open or somebody’s on him, he’s going to bring it down,” Watson said. “If he doesn’t bring it down, no one will.
“The percentage of the balls going his way, I’m pretty sure it’s about 80, 90 percent that they’re going to get caught. He’s a veteran guy, an All-Pro receiver, and he just continues to bring the trust in myself and this team.”
Hopkins had six catches for 110 yards and a touchdown in Week 2 against Tennessee, but the Titans squeaked out a 20-17 victory. If the Titans (5-5) hope to finish the season sweep Monday, they have to find a way to slow Hopkins.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson has taken measures toward reducing Hopkins’ damage by selecting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson in the first round in 2017 and signing free agent Malcolm Butler to a five-year, $61 million contract.
“He’s great, man,” Butler said of Hopkins. “He can be physical; he can stem you up, and he can jump. The guy can catch the ball with one hand, two hands. There’s not much he can’t do. We have to compete on every snap. We can’t go to sleep on him. He has big-play ability, and we’ll have to adjust to him.”
Scheming against greatness
With the new pieces in place, how can the Titans stop Hopkins from dominating them the way Deebo dominated the neighborhood in the movie “Friday”?
ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, a former NFL defensive back, thinks Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees should rely on their New England Patriots roots to attack Hopkins.
“It’s kind of like what the Patriots have done in the past,” Bowen said. “They’ll take the No. 1 [WR] and bracket that guy and put their No. 1 corner on [the] No. 2 [WR]. That would leave Butler playing on Hopkins with safety help and put Adoree’ on Demaryius [Thomas] and say [to Jackson], ‘You got him. You’ll be in solo coverage and still have some post help, but you won’t have immediate help.’ That’s one way I would look at doing it with [Houston WR Will] Fuller out.”
Losing Fuller for the season to a knee injury in Week 8 changed things for the Texans, because his deep speed stretched the field. The vertical threat Fuller presents when healthy takes one of the safeties out of the play and opens up the deep, in-breaking routes that allow Hopkins to devastate opponents. Houston (7-3) added Thomas via trade after losing Fuller, but Thomas is more of a big-bodied possession receiver and doesn’t threaten a defense the way Fuller can.
Byard still thinks Houston can be effective with Thomas in place of Fuller opposite Hopkins.
“They are still winning games,” Byard said. “It’s not like when Fuller was lost everything was gone. It does take away the deep threat, but Demaryius Thomas is a Pro Bowl receiver. They have No. 16 [slot receiver Keke] Coutee who has been playing well also, so they have guys that can still make plays.”
Houston head coach Bill O’Brien does a great job of using the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Hopkins effectively in situational football. The Texans like to put him in the slot or isolate him on the back side of plays to maximize his effectiveness in the red zone or on third-and-long situations when he runs a deep crossing route.
“Usually what you get from Houston in the slot alignment is the slot fade or the slot corner route,” Bowen explained. “They try to create that one-on-one. It’s more about players and matchups.
“Hopkins can win on isolation routes all day. He doesn’t need a lot of separation because of his catch radius. If you have good coverage, he has that big frame to shield you from the football. Then he can go top shelf and make a play. When he’s in those alignments, you need an answer, whether it’s a great matchup where you use your technique and win at the point of attack or you take a safety and … try and make Deshaun go somewhere else with the football.”
Jackson vs. Hopkins?
Matching up Jackson against Hopkins in man coverage would be worth the price of admission. Jackson’s first career interception came against the Texans in Week 2 when he was covering Hopkins. Jackson showed his elite ball skills when he jumped to intercept the Watson pass intended for Hopkins on a skinny post route.
Jackson has drawn the top receiver on the opposing team in each of the past two weeks. In Week 10, Patriots wideout Josh Gordon posted 81 receiving yards on 12 targets against the Titans, but 44 of those yards came on a reception when Jackson wasn’t covering him. Last week, Jackson struggled as Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton exploded for nine receptions, 155 yards and two touchdowns.
Bowen has watched Jackson since the cornerback’s college days at USC and feels Jackson has always shown the traits of being a premier man-coverage corner. He focused on Jackson’s quick-twitch traits and how they allow him to transition well as he aggressively breaks on the football. Bowen also complimented Jackson’s ball skills, pointing to how he played on offense in college and how he still returns punts in the NFL.
Jackson has put last week behind him and is moving on to his next assignment, which could be a mighty one.
“At the end of the day, you have to go back to the lab and go back to film to see what I can do better and go look forward to Monday night,” Jackson said.
Fellow Titans cornerback Logan Ryan offered his take on Jackson.
“I told him to learn from what happened, and it’s never as bad as you think,” Ryan said. “You’re going against some of the best receivers in the league. One thing about Adoree’ is he has a great short-term memory. He’s built for this job, and he’s one of the best at it. We’re excited about Monday night.”