A few weeks ago, episode one of last summer's Hard Knocks was playing on NFL Network. At some point in the episode, I couldn't help but chuckle (well I did when it ran the first time too) as Liev Schreiber narrated over video of DeAndre Hopkins. He noted that Hopkins was bidding to become the Texans number one receiver. Well, he had already been that in 2014, but he more than cemented that designation in 2015. As I watched him on screen and thought about his season, it conjured up one of my favorite Houston sports memories.
1995 Western Conference Finals, featuring Rockets legendary center Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Rockets faced the San Antonio Spurs and 1995 NBA MVP David Robinson. Prior to the series starting, the NBA presented Robinson with the MVP trophy and that didn't sit well with Dream. So, the Rockets star decided to break out the full tool kit to show who the real MVP was. The Dream Shake was often Olajuwon's go-to move down in the post, but in the six games against Robinson, he spun, he juked, he faked, he flipped, he faded, whatever it took to embarrass the guy that Dream said "had his (MVP) trophy". When Robinson expected Olajuwon to come across the middle, Dream slid up and under. When Robinson expected Olajuwon to jump hook, he pump faked...pump faked again and stepped through for the basket. It was complete dissection of a future Basketball Hall of Famer by the Rockets GOAT. Olajuwon was playing chess while, well, you know the rest.
At this point, you're wondering what this has to do with Hopkins. Well, first of all, who isn't a fan of Dream? Secondly, when I went back to watch Hopkins on tape during 2015, I was struck by how often Hop won routes in different ways, like Olajuwon. It wasn't just "throw-it-up-to-Hop-and-hope-he-makes-a-play", although that did work in a pinch. He never allowed defensive backs to get comfortable by doing just one thing repeatedly. He utilized an Olajuwon-like repertoire of routes, moves and techniques to get open in every way possible. Sure, he made some of the best catches in the NFL in 2015, but it was how he got himself into position to make those catches, in varied ways, that set off my Olajuwon radar.
Case in point...here's a three catch sequence in the win at Jacksonville that helps illustrate my point.
5:28 in the 1st Quarter
"GOTTA HAVE IT" play
The Texans aligned in 22 personnel with two running backs and two tight ends on the field on a key 4th-and-1 in the first quarter. Hopkins was aligned to the top of the formation with CB Davon House in press coverage. What made press coverage dangerous against Hopkins was that he had three different ways he could release off the line of scrimmage.
He could run a quick slant. He could fade up the sideline. He could run an in route.
On this 4th-and-1 situation, Hopkins ran a quick in route but House was in perfect position with inside leverage to make that awfully difficult.
But, Hopkins first drove up field, then used his strength to rip back through and underneath House to get in proper position to make the catch. He then boxed him out, as he used to do in his years as an all-state basketball star in the state of South Carolina.
Pitch. Catch. First down.
8:58 in the 2nd Quarter
The Texans had "10 personnel" - one RB, no TE - on the field on this play, but for Hopkins, he had a similar look against House, near the Texans sideline. A quarter earlier, Hopkins beat House to the inside on the quick in route as noted above.
On the snap, the Jaguar corner immediately took away the inside route from Hopkins, but in doing so, House left the sideline area open for Hopkins to work. With that opening, Hopkins put House on his hip in a losing proposition. Sure, House took away the in route, but the fade/back-shoulder was available with some room for Hopkins on the Texans sideline.
QB DeAndre Hopkins threw the back-shoulder fade to the outside, where House had no chance to make a play. Hopkins whirled around and snagged the catch with one hand for a 16-yard catch and a first down.
I remember seeing House getting upset after that catch and thinking Hopkins had him right where he wanted him. He had won with some strength on the "gotta have it" 4th-and-1 in route and now on the back-shoulder fade. But, in the fourth quarter, Hop saved his best for last.
8:12 in the 4th Quarter
Again, Hopkins had House in press coverage to the bottom of the formation. Now, if you're House, what are you thinking?
In the first quarter, in a similar down/distance situation, he beat House back to the inside on the in route. Sure, Hopkins ran the back-shoulder fade in the second quarter, but House knew he couldn't get beat again, inside, for a first down.
He got beat outside for a touchdown.
As Hopkins started off the line, he leaned into House as if he was going to run that in route to the first down marker for the catch. But, just as he was about to make that cut, he immediately burst up field, sprinting well behind House. The throw was easy. The catch equally so.
Hop won three ways - In route with some strength, back-shoulder fade and go route - and all from the same alignment and coverage. It certainly left House with more questions as to how to stop the Texans number one option. Hopkins did what most young receivers can't do, win multiple ways, and it's what separates him from other pass catchers in this league.
It's sort of Olajuwon-like, if you ask me.