DeAndre Hopkins is in his sixth NFL season, all with the Houston Texans, and he has 507 receptions, including 94 this season for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns. But it’s his most recent catch that has caused a case of agita to spread throughout the Eagles secondary, ahead of a game they have to win.
With 2 minutes, 20 seconds left in regulation Saturday, with the Texans trailing the New York Jets by three points at MetLife Stadium, Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson threw a fade from the Jets’ 14-yard line toward the left corner of the end zone, where Hopkins and Jets cornerback Morris Clairborne were tangoing. For a couple of seconds, Claiborne, who is 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, and a seven-year NFL veteran, outfought Hopkins, who is 6-1 and 215, for position. In fact, the pass at first appeared to be intended for Claiborne; it sailed directly toward his facemask. At the last instant, though, Hopkins stretched out and snatched the ball away. Touchdown. The Texans won, 29-22. The play made quite the impression on the Eagles’ defensive backs, who are tasked with stopping Hopkins this Sunday.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins: “I don’t know what you tell Morris Claiborne if you’re that coach. ‘God gave him something he didn’t give you.’ ”
Cornerback Sidney Jones: “I see the replay and the way he’s gripping the ball, that finger strength. That’s the biggest difference between him and some other receivers.”
Cornerback Rasul Douglas: “He makes contested catches look like no one’s right there. That one against Claiborne was pretty crazy. Did you see it? It looked like Claiborne was going to win the route. I mean, I believe he and Watson have great chemistry. He’s got 140 targets, and the next player has 30.”
Actually, Hopkins has 135 targets this season, and the Texans player with the second most is receiver (and Roman Catholic alumnus) Will Fuller, who hasn’t played since Week 7 because of a torn ACL. But Douglas was close enough to make his point. Watson could walk to the line of scrimmage Sunday, yell out to the Eagles’ 11 defensive players, “HEY, GUYS, I’M THROWING IT TO DEANDRE ON THIS PLAY,” and still have a decent chance of completing the pass.
Hopkins is bigger than any defensive back who’s faster than he is. He’s faster than any defensive back who’s bigger than he is. He rolled his ankle against the Jets, but the injury didn’t seem to bother him on that touchdown catch against Claiborne, and he practiced without trouble Wednesday. Besides, Hopkins has made enough one-handed catches to suggest that, even if Robert De Niro caught him cheating in a casino and administered some rough justice, he would nevertheless be capable of racking up 50 receptions in a season.
“Not only does he high-point the ball and is strong enough to squeeze it, he’s also strong enough to come down with that ball in his hand,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “He’s a threat to run after the catch. He’s one of the best receivers in the NFL.”
The Eagles already have faced several receivers this season who approximate Hopkins’ skill set. In Week 1, the Falcons’ Julio Jones had 10 receptions for 169 yards but didn’t score a touchdown. The Eagles won. In Week 2, the Buccaneers’ Mike Evans had 10 catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. The Eagles lost. Over two games, the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. had 11 catches for 129 yards and no touchdowns. The Eagles won both. Over two games, the Cowboys’ Amari Cooper had 16 catches for 292 yards and three touchdowns. The Eagles lost both.
“Done well against some of them; haven’t done well against others,” Jenkins said. “The thing it comes down to is, we’ll have ways to put ourselves in position to stop him, but at the point of attack, you’ve got to be able to win. One guy, two guys, three guys — it doesn’t matter if he goes up over all of them. It’s obviously a tough matchup, one that we’ll monitor. We’ll know where he is. But guys are going to have to win. There’s no way around that.”
But what does “winning” mean when it comes to covering Hopkins? Should the Eagles’ corners press him and challenge the defensive line to harass Watson, who’s been sacked a league-high 52 times? Should the corners play softer, keep Hopkins in front of them, and try to tackle well? Should they stay with him as best as they can and just hope? “You have to have interception intentions,” Douglas said. “You can’t just play for [pass breakups] or just play to his hands.”