On a day when Houston was unable to get much of anything else going offensively, the one guy on the Texans roster capable of taking over a game did just that, at least for a while. DeAndre Hopkins, who is widely regarded as one of the best wide receivers in the league, showed off his reputation as a playmaker during extended periods of the Niners' 26-16 victory.
Hopkins lit up the secondary to the tune of 11 catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns. He drew two defensive pass interference calls and a flag for holding.
"Hopkins is a very good player," Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. "We knew he was going to have his. I thought we did a good job for the most part. I know we gave up that big, it looked like a seven-cut, to him there at the end, which we shouldn't have in that coverage. But T.J. [Yates] made a good throw, and he dropped it in to him. Just thought we played them better the rest of the game. We didn't let them get by us. Caught a few things in front of us. If you can bend but don't break against him, then you're usually doing a good job.”
As it turned out, the Niners' apparent plan to allow Hopkins to have his success while limiting everyone else was enough to get a win. However, the 49ers did have to make some adjustments to prevent Hopkins from winning the game seemingly on his own.
After the 49ers started the game by letting Hopkins work the intermediate areas before safety help arrived, the defense tweaked its coverage by having corners press Hopkins at the line, with free safety Adrian Colbert creeping closer to the line of scrimmage.
San Francisco also pulled cornerback Dontae Johnson after he was guilty of the penalties and after he was on the wrong end of many of the completions to Hopkins. Undrafted rookie Greg Mabin replaced Johnson before an injury to Ahkello Witherspoon forced Johnson to return.
"I'll chalk this one down as a performance that I would like to give back and redo it again,” Johnson said.
Those two adjustments seemed to do the trick, as Hopkins was mostly quiet over the final quarter and a half. San Francisco actually closed the victory with Colbert's help, as he forced Hopkins to fumble in the fourth quarter to help seal the victory.
"He's a great player," Colbert said. "You see it on the film, and you see the numbers. The guy is like somebody you kind of have to double cover. I don't care who your cornerback is, you have to double-cover the guy. He's a great receiver, he's always been a great receiver. He's one of the premiere league receivers."
Moving forward, the 49ers are sure to see more of the league's premiere receivers and would be wise to invest some of their copious financial and/or draft resources in bolstering the position. Johnson is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the year, and his return is no sure thing.
Witherspoon has promise and looks to be a part of the future, but the Niners have some other things to consider. Free safety Jimmie Ward moved from cornerback and could return there if the 49ers feel good enough about Colbert permanently taking over the free safety job.
Adding Ward back to the mix would add depth, but it remains to be seen how he'd fit at that position in this scheme. His injury history would still suggest that another cornerback is needed. The Niners missed a golden chance to land a top corner who fits the scheme last year, when they didn't make a run at Jacksonville's A.J. Bouye, but they are flush with cash and will have five picks in the first three rounds of next year's draft.
The Rams' Trumaine Johnson, New England's Malcolm Butler and Philadelphia's Patrick Robinson are among the free-agent cornerbacks who could hit the open market. The draft could offer top prospects such as Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ohio State's Denzel Ward and Iowa's Joshua Jackson.
No matter where the Niners look to improve in the secondary, Sunday was another reminder that for the defense to take another step forward, help will have to come from the outside.