FOXBORO — It’s been 14 months since the Patriots last saw Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
In Bill Belichick‘s eyes, he’s the same All-Pro problem.
“He was great then. He’s great now,” Belichick said Wednesday.
One of the few wide receivers who’s been able to periodically escape a Stephon Gilmore shadow in recent seasons, Hopkins has twice gone head-to-head with his fellow All-Pro. In those Pats-Texans battles, Hopkins caught seven of 10 passes against Gilmore for 99 yards and drew a pass interference penalty, according to matchup data compiled by Pro Football Focus. This season, he ranks second in the NFL with 81 catches.
“He gets open, he catches the ball. Doesn’t matter what the route is, doesn’t matter what the coverage is, doesn’t matter where the ball’s thrown or what the situation — first-and-10, fourth-and-goal — he’s very, very productive,” Belichick said. “And he has such a variety of skills and routes, he can really do it all.”
Gilmore also came away with an interception in the original 2017 meeting. The problem for the Patriots is Gilmore was one of eight players to miss practice Wednesday due to illness. His absence Sunday night could complicate their coverage plans. The Pats may have to shift their match
Then again, Hopkins has simplified opponents’ plans all season, according to Pats safety Duron Harmon.
“He’s drawing double-team coverage almost every week, so it’s always hard (against him),” Harmon said. “He’s still making the plays he needs to make, he’s still catching the football, and he’s still one of the best receivers in the league.”
The only difference in Hopkins from recent years, per Belichick and Harmon, is how Houston is deploying him. The Texans move their three-time Pro Bowler all across the formation to put additional stress on defenses designed on doubling him. He becomes a moving target, even when play is at standstill pre-snap.
“He’s in the slot, he’s in motion, he’s not always on the weak side,” Belichick said. “He’s there some, but they put him in different spots, and they do a good job of making it tough for you to cover him.”
Pats could punch playoff ticket
By the time the Patriots take the field Sunday in Houston, they could control their postseason fate.
With a win and a loss or tie from either Oakland or Pittsburgh, the Pats will clinch their 11th straight playoff berth. The Steelers are slated as 2.5-point home underdogs against Cleveland in a 1 p.m. kickoff. Meanwhile, the Raiders are one of two double-digit underdogs this week, along with Washington.
Oakland will travel to Kansas City as a 10-point ‘dog for a 4:25 p.m. kick. The Patriots have only missed the playoffs three times since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000.
Slater named AFC Special Teams POW
Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater is one of the league’s longest-tenured players. He is accomplished, respected and perhaps one day headed for the Hall of Fame. But he still has room for career firsts.
For the first time since he entered the league in 2008, Slater was named the AFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week on Wednesday. The 34-year-old blocked a punt in the Pats’ 13-9 win over the Cowboys last weekend, which set up the game’s only touchdown. It was the first punt block of his career and third of the Patriots’ season.
Slater’s award is the third AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honor the team has earned this year, after Jake Bailey was recognized for his outstanding performances in Weeks 3 and 12. As of last week, Slater and Bailey were the AFC’s leading vote-getters at their positions for this year’s Pro Bowl.
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