The San Francisco 49ers managed to win in Houston but there were still some challenges on the field, and one of them was Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. It should be noted that Hopkins has the second most receiving yards (1,233 yards) in the league after Week 14, behind Antonio Brown.
Hopkins dissected the 49ers defense, finishing the day with 11 receptions for 149 yards and two touchdowns. The defensive back who spent most of the day with the challenging task of covering Hopkins was Dontae Johnson. Midway through the third quarter after one defensive holding call and two defensive pass interference calls, Greg Mabin replaced Johnson and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh adjusted the coverage a bit. Not too much later Ahkello Witherspoon left the game due to a knee injury and Johnson went back in to better results.
Kyle Shanahan detailed the change in the line up in his Monday recap press conference:
What was the process to taking CB Dontae Johnson out of the game at that point? Was that defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley's call or defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s? Houston Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins didn't have a target until that bubble screen when he fumbled. Was that purely a product of the adjustments you guys made and CB Greg Mabin being in the game?
No, it was just a tough drive. We knew going into that game that all of our corners had a huge challenge with Hopkins. He can run. He's very similar to what I was just describing with Quise and someone who has that 40 time to scare people, but can also break down and has the hands to attack balls and can run the whole route tree. That's an issue for a corner, especially if you're not getting to the quarterback very fast. Dontae had a very tough drive. Any time it starts out with a pass interference, then guys lose their confidence a little bit. They were coming after him, and it was just a rough drive for him. Sometimes when you do that, you just want to stop the bleeding a little bit. It was nothing permanent or anything like that. You do it, not just to put all the blame on the kid, but also to help him. We weren't going to for sure put Mabin in the rest of the game. We were going to plan on getting Dontae back in there, but he had to get in anyway when Ahkello got hurt, so he was going to be in regardless. We helped Dontae at times. We helped Mabin a lot when he got in there too. Even sometimes when we did help, they were able to make the play. That happens, but when a player gets attacked like that on one drive, you kind of want to help him, let him get away for a little bit, recover, and not just continue to put him out there on that island.
How did Johnson respond?
He came in and did well. When he came back in, we were cheating a lot of the coverage more to Hopkins at that time, and they weren't able to get to any other guys. I thought Dontae didn't have a bad play after that. Just what I liked about it, he understood and didn't sit there and freak out on the sidelines, didn't pout. He sat there, understood, and didn't lose it. He waited to see when his next opportunity would come. You never know if that will be the next game. It might be a play later. In his case, it was a couple of drives later. He went out there and still did his job, which is what he's expected to do. He didn't let a negative affect him worse.
Johnson was clearly frustrated after the Texan’s first drive of the third quarter where the two DPI’s occurred, throwing his helmet down on the sidelines. After the game he spoke about how challenging it was to cover Hopkins:
He’s a great player. I think he’s the number two receiver in the league at this point. It’s tough, it’s just tough, again he’s a great player. That’s why he’s the number two receiver in the league.
When asked if he regrouped mentally when Mabin went into the game in his place:
Yeah, definitely. My teammates, guys in the secondary, just told me to keep my head up. It was going to take us all. I can’t let my play affect the rest of the guys so I just tried to stay positive and help them as much as I could. It was a tough game for me. I’m just glad we got the win.
It’s just one of those things. He’s a great player. A few of the calls, I thought were a little questionable, at the same time, you just have to compete. He won the one on one match up when it’s said and done. Again, great player, good catch radius, great hands, great player.
On this being a learning experience for him:
Absolutely. Everytime I step out there it’s a learning experience for me. I’m going to chalk this one up as a performance that I would like to give back, redo it again, but I’ll watch the film, learn from it and move on.