FOXBORO — The Patriots defense has its hands full as the team prepares for its season opener against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Although plenty of the game plan will focus on quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Texans have a clear number one receiver to keep the Patriots’ secondary occupied in 2017 First Team All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins.
Since 2014, only Steelers wideout Antonio Brown and Falcons receiver Julio Jones have more receiving yards than Hopkins, and the Texans receiver is also tied for third in the NFL in receiving touchdowns over that span (34).
There’s no way to erase Hopkins completely, but based on last year’s film, the Patriots had a clear strategy in place to limit the premier wideout’s production in the Week 3 matchup.
The game plan was to bracket Hopkins with what the Patriots call “cone” coverage.
(Hopkins at the bottom of the screen)
Here’s an example of the Patriots deploying a “cone” scheme against Hopkins last season. In this scheme, it’s the corners’ responsibility (Gilmore) to maintain outside leverage to cover any routes breaking towards the sideline, including fade routes. Gilmore is also responsible for backing up the safety on any double-moves. Why? Because the safety’s job is to sit on any in-breaking routes as well as protect against the deep ball, leaving him susceptible to double moves.
The Patriots often deploy safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon as the free safety in these types of schemes, and they went into great detail when asked about the keys to executing on “cone” or bracket coverages.
McCourty, one of the best free safeties in the NFL this decade, said that head coach Bill Belichick keeps it simple with the safeties in these situations.
“If you’re ever a guy over the top of a receiver here, Bill will come up to you and he’ll say the goal is for that guy not to catch, and he usually puts a couple of choice words in there, the ball,” McCourty said.
One of six team captains, McCourty also stressed the importance of watching Hopkins film as a group, not just one or two guys together, but the entire secondary.
“I think we just try to watch him [Hopkins] together a lot,” McCourty said.
“Not just Malc [Butler] or Steph [Gilmore] last year. This year E-Rowe, J [Jonathan Jones] and Steph. It’s just all of us trying to watch him and see what he does. Cause he [Hopkins] affects everyone in the secondary.”
Harmon explained his thought process when he’s defending Hopkins in bracket coverage.
“Whatever side or leverage you have, maintain that leverage. And try to do a good job of just literally not giving the quarterback any open throws to get him the ball,” Harmon said.
For the safety on the play, as stated earlier, it’s very easy to get caught peeking inside, and Harmon described the keys to protecting the deep part of the field as well.
“You have to read his hips and read his pace. When he’s going vertical, it’s a different kind of run then when he’s trying to run an in-cut or something,” the Pats safety nicknamed “the closer” for his game-clinching interceptions said.
Harmon also echoed McCourty’s sentiment that film study is key to stopping a receiver like Hopkins.
“You have to study the film to know what you’ll get from different splits to know what to expect,” Harmon said.
He then added, “and just read his body language to see if he’s running vertical or getting in position to break or go in or out.”
The Patriots hope that a combination of film study and past experiences going up against Hopkins will help them key on some of his tendencies to slow the prolific receiver down.
But as McCourty said, the Texans wideout will still make plays.
“Sometimes when you have him covered, he makes great catches. You can be right in position and look back and say, ‘the quarterback isn’t going to throw this, I have him covered,’ and he contorts his body to make a crazy catch.”
As we saw last season, and with other top wide receivers such as Hopkins, expect a heavy dosage of “cone” coverages from the Patriots on Sunday.
Although it’s nearly impossible to shut Hopkins out completely, the scheme has done well by the Patriots against some of the games best receivers in the past.
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