Hopkins quietly struggled through the first 57 minutes of Sunday’s game versus the Tennessee Titans, catching just two passes for 25 yards. But when the Texans needed big plays late in the fourth quarter to tie the game, and again in overtime to win the game, Hopkins delivered.
Trailing 24-16 with just 3:07 left in regulation, the Texans drove 87 yards in just one minute and 14 seconds to score a touchdown, which they capped with a successful two-point conversion to tie the game. The drive was made possible by Hopkins, who caught three consecutive passes for a combined 64 yards to move the Texans down the field.
Star wide receiver Andre Johnson was sidelined with a concussion during that touchdown drive, so the Texans needed Hopkins to step up again in overtime. He did so by making a challenging 25-yard catch over the coverage of Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, then beating McCourty again three plays later with a toe-tapping, game-winning touchdown reception.
Hopkins ended up finishing the game with a very impressive stat line—seven receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown—but more importantly, he was the hero of the game by making big plays to lead the Texans to a victory that didn’t come easily.
Although he is only two games into his NFL career, Hopkins already looks to be well worth the first-round pick the Texans invested in him in the 2013 NFL draft. If he continues to make big plays like the ones he made in the clutch Sunday, he could be the best wide receiver from his draft class.
Hopkins’ Five Big Plays
Each of Hopkins’ five late-game receptions that led the Texans to Sunday’s victory is worth a second look. It wasn’t just the result of those plays that was impressive, but also how he made them.
Catch 1: Leaping 22-yard catch on seam route up right middle
Hopkins’ first fourth-quarter catch was a classic example of a receiver “high-pointing” the football, showing his vertical leap ability while perfectly timing his leap to catch a high pass and come down with it. He did so impressively on this play, making the catch for 22 yards and securing it even as he took contact coming down to the ground.
Catch 2: five-yard catch on inside slant, eight-yard extension on run toward sideline
Hopkins showed his route-running skill and change-of-direction quickness on this play. He made a simple catch on a five-yard inside slant, but by the time he even finished the catch, he had already started to turn the other way and upfield toward the right sideline to get an angle on Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner, who was playing two to three yards off Hopkins in man coverage.
Hopkins does not have blazing speed, but he did a good job of accelerating quickly to follow a block from tight end Owen Daniels and getting to the sideline.
Catch 3: 28-yard leaping catch over coverage on go route up right sideline
The next two plays—Hopkins’ longest receptions of the game—are where Hopkins really showed his ability to fight through coverage and make a play on the ball in the air.
On this play, Verner did a good job jamming Hopkins then staying with him all the way down the field. Hopkins was stuck hand-fighting and unable to separate from Verner throughout the play.
That didn’t stop Hopkins from making the play. He did a terrific job leaping up and high-pointing the ball once again, even as Verner pinned him tight to the right sideline. He was able to come down with the catch in bounds before going out with a 28-yard gain.
Catch 4: 25-yard leaping catch over coverage on go route up right sideline
The basic description of this play, the one that put the Houston Texans on the verge of an overtime victory, is the same as the last play because it was very similar.
Once again, Hopkins was well-covered on a go route up the right sideline, but although he was unable to separate from coverage, he used his leaping ability on ball skills to make the play over coverage, this time against McCourty.
Catch 5: Out route to right side of end zone from 3-yard line for touchdown catch
After putting his team in position to win, it was only fitting Hopkins would make the game-winning play. Once again, he did so in impressive fashion.
Hopkins was bumped at the goal line by McCourty, but broke off toward the right side of the end zone.
In midair, Hopkins did a terrific job of turning back to the ball to make the catch.
As McCourty tried to knock the ball away with his arm, Hopkins exhibited outstanding body control, as he finished spinning his body toward the sideline, but got both of his feet in bounds. He held the ball securely all the way to the ground, giving him clear possession for a touchdown reception.
Evaluating Hopkins’ All-Around Game
Hopkins displayed the skill set Sunday that convinced the Texans to draft him with the No. 27 overall pick in this year’s draft and led many draft analysts to rank him as the No. 1 wide receiver prospect in the draft class (I personally ranked Hopkins as the No. 22 overall player in the draft class and the No. 3 receiver prospect behind Robert Woods and Cordarrelle Patterson).
As demonstrated in the plays above, Hopkins does a terrific job of attacking the football in the air and securing the ball in his strong hands. He has very good body control and fights through contact without getting bumped off his route. He is a crisp route-runner who will find zones in defenses and get open.
That said, Hopkins is far from being without his flaws, and Sunday put those on display as well.
Even on his biggest plays of the game, Hopkins suffered from an inability to separate from coverage. He does not have explosive long speed, so he is not going to outrun cornerbacks on deep routes in man coverage. If he allows cornerbacks to jam him within the first five yards as McCourty and Verner did Sunday, he is going to consistently have trouble separating.
As a result of that, Hopkins was not targeted for most of Sunday’s game. He was also at least partially responsible for a Titans defensive touchdown when a miscommunication with quarterback Matt Schaub allowed Verner to sit on a pass and intercept it, then return it 23 yards to the end zone.
As Hopkins’ game continues to polish with experience, however, he could be a similar player to San Francisco 49ers wideout Anquan Boldin.
He is never going to beat defenses consistently with his speed or blow by cornerbacks consistently off the line of scrimmage, but he can often make up for it with his ability to fight through coverage and make plays on the ball.
As his rapport with Schaub develops over the course of the season, he will also be able to diversify his routes more to get into the middle of the field more often and create more openings.
All screenshots were taken from NFL Game Rewind with all illustrations added by the author firsthand.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.