ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It’s no mystery, it’s not calculus and doesn’t take a lot quiet time to sort out where the Houston Texans like to throw in the passing game.
“Oh, they’re throwing it to DeAndre," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “All you have to do is watch. He’s getting the ball no matter where he is on the field."
Yes, DeAndre Hopkins is getting the ball, almost as many times as Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson can throw it to him in a game. Hopkins has been targeted 78 times in eight games, or 33 times more than any of his teammates through eight games.
Hopkins is third in the league in receiving yards (789) and tied for third in receiving touchdowns (six). And even as the Texans traded for Demaryius Thomas, who started the week as the Broncos’ longest-tenured player and will end the football week facing his former team, handling Hopkins will be the key focus of Denver's defense.
And the Broncos' biggest dilemma in coverage right now is there is only one Chris Harris to go around.
“Hopefully I get to match [Hopkins]," Harris said. “He’s very physical, he wants you to press him, then kill you with his releases. He’s very good with his hands and he’s probably the best 50-50, jump ball guy in the league."
The Broncos find themselves in a statistically quirky spot these days in pass defense. Overall they are 11th in the league, having allowed a not-so-bad 237.5 yards per game in these pass-happy times. And just one opposing quarterback has topped 300 yards passing against them -- the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes has done it twice.
But when opposing offenses feel like they really need a play, they can get that play by isolating cornerback Bradley Roby in coverage or targeting the team’s nickel cornerback, whether that’s Tramaine Brock or Adam Jones.
Early in the season, offenses often went after Brock in those situations, but in recent weeks, Roby has consistently found himself to be the guy getting much of the attention. And this week the Broncos also have some injury concerns in the secondary as Roby has received treatment for an ankle injury -- he did not practice Wednesday -- while safety Darian Stewart has not practiced since leaving the Week 7 game against the Arizona Cardinals with a neck injury.
“We have guys that are capable," said Broncos coach Vance Joseph. “... Brock’s played really well the last two weeks, so I’ve been really impressed with him. Adam Jones is healthy now, so I have no concerns there."
But the Texans, unless Harris follows him the whole game, figure to try to get Hopkins against Roby or Brock as often as possible. And in a contested-pass situation, the Broncos know what Hopkins can do if the defensive back alongside him isn’t on point in his technique.
“What makes him unique are his ball skills -- his ball skills are bar none," said Joseph, who was a Texans assistant in Hopkins’ rookie year in 2013. “If the DB doesn’t see the ball being thrown or in flight he will catch it, that’s the bottom line … If ... [Hopkins] sees the ball and you don’t he will catch it every single time. Not once in a while, but every single time. So, you better get your eyes back and have help over the top for this guy."
To this point, the Broncos have surrendered five 100-yard receiving games, four of those to wide receivers. Two of those players -- the Jets’ Robby Anderson and the Chiefs’ Sammy Watkins -- have had two touchdowns against the Broncos.
“You have to change it up with him, you can’t do the same thing every time because he knows he can beat you if you do the same things every time," said Harris about facing Hopkins over other receivers. “You can’t just go press him every time, you have to have some change-ups. Give him different things to look at, if he sees the same thing over and over he’s going to get the catches."