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Matchup of the Week: DeAndre Hopkins vs. Josh Norman (Pt. II)

Two elite players square off for the second time in their careers on Sunday.

Whether you are a fan of football or badminton, you ideally want to see the best play the best. Any opportunity to do so garners your attention. For badminton fans, the BWF World Championships or the Olympics are the best case scenario. Fortunately for football fans, elite talent squares off on a weekly basis, and the next iteration of talented players facing off against one another will be in the Texans-Redskins game on Sunday. 2017 All-Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins will likely be covered by 2015 All-Pro Josh Norman.

The two NFL stars both grew up in South Carolina; their high schools are about an hour away from each other. Norman went to Greenwood High School and actually played alongside current running mate D.J. Swearinger. Together, Swearinger and Norman won a state title in 2006.

The one and only time Nuk and Norman have faced off against each other was back in 2015 when Ryan Mallett was the future of the Texans’ franchise and Norman played for the Carolina Panthers. Neither of those situations lasted very long; Norman left Carolina after the season to cash in with the Redskins after his only All-Pro campaign.

It was not certain at the time, but Carolina was about to go on a 14-game winning streak and all the way to the Super Bowl. But for this Week 2 match up, the main focus was on budding star in DeAndre Hopkins against the league’s best corner. If you can remember in the not-so-distant past, the Texans struggled to do that thing where one player named the quarterback did a neat trick where he moves his arm at a funny angle and an inflated pig’s bladder they call a football is lofted into the air and - supposedly - lands in the should-be-illegal-because-they-are-so-sticky gloves of his intended target. Back in 2015, this was an undiscovered treasure trove of potential first downs for the Texans.

I had a chance to take advantage of my NFL Game Pass subscription and re-watch the Texans-Panthers game from 2015. The first thing that popped in the film was that Josh Norman plays with zero fear. Lined up one foot from the line of scrimmage, Norman played press coverage like it was nobody’s business. Take a look at the first catch of the day for Hopkins.

3rd and 10 from the Texans 22

A pretty simple concept executed by the Texans here. Hopkins is on an option route with Norman shaded outside in a Cover 3 zone with two linebackers underneath the zone. The option part of the route is predicated on whether Norman keeps his outside leverage throughout the entire length of the route. As Hopkins sprints towards the first down marker, he reads and reacts to Norman pressing him at the top of the route.

At this point, Norman has cut off Hopkins; he knows the goal of the route is to get the first down. However, Norman just barely turns his hips away from his original outside leverage stance, which allows Hopkins to cut against the coverage and get open for a first down.

The second pass I'll show is a bit more indicative of how the rest of the game went for these two stars. Mallett was having a hard time finding D-Hop, and that is because Hopkins’ route tree was not fully developed yet. Norman was able to condense the number of routes he had to predictably cover.

On this first and 10 play, Watson is the X receiver in the formation facing Cover 3 man. The Panthers are disguising their coverage as a Cover 2 with two safeties, but they bail the top safety out and bring the bottom safety closer to the line of scrimmage in the box.

Norman wins battle for deep ball

At the snap, Hopkins takes too long to get off the line of scrimmage and is forced to detour to get over the top of a stacked Norman. Then, without the normal momentum that he should have been leading with, Nuk peels out to get Norman to bite on the short route and again breaks away from the cornerback. Because of the slow start, the effects of the fake out route are diminished, which allow Norman to hand battle with Hopkins for 35 yards downfield until Mallett over throws him.

At this point, the ball is directly over the head of Hopkins as he extends his right arm to separate from Norman. The hand fighting and slow progression into the route forced Mallett to overthrow Hopkins instead of Hopkins being there on time.

Norman won this play and many more this game - only allowing two receptions for 24 yards... as he proudly boasted in 2015 on Twitter:

There should be some real hype around this match-up on Sunday that I have seen. Although Norman is not at the peak of his career, he is still a major contributor to Washington’s defense and had an interception last week. Both players look to be different since they last met. Hopkins has turned into one of the best receivers and runs smoother routes. Norman plays more off-man coverage and will sink into zone schemes for the Redskins more often.

From scouting Washington’s coverage tendencies and watching how Norman previously played Hopkins, I would not be surprised if the Texans stick Hopkins in the slot or at least in tight stacked twins sets with Keke Coutee on Sunday. Norman loves to play with outside leverage; he is one of the premiere corners at taking away half of the route tree and forcing a receiver to run inside to make contested catches. Putting Nuk in the slot or motioning him into the slot takes away the leverage Norman plays with and forces the Redskins into uncomfortable match-ups.

Another thing—from watching the highlights of the Redskins-Buccaneers game last week, the Redskins’ defense either overly respected Ryan Fitzpatrick’s arm, the downfield threat of DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans, or they were purposely trying to give the Bucs time to throw; they ran almost 100% soft man coverage instead of aggressively challenging the wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.

A different looking Norman gives space to his receivers

Sunday will most likely put one of these two teams firmly ahead in the playoff race. Both teams are 6-3 and have relatively easy schedules moving forward. With the Titans gaining in the AFC South and the Cowboys/Eagles providing similar problems for the Redskins in the NFC East, a win in Week 10 would be a big stiff-arm in the division race.

The Hopkins-Norman match-up may help decide which team is that much closer to making the NFL Playoffs. I predict that Hopkins has over 10 catches but not 100 yards. An onslaught of short to intermediate passes will be the game plan against the Redskins. If D-Hop gets in the end zone one on Sunday - a feat he has accomplished for four straight weeks - I would say that it’s a win for him over Norman.