With the game on the line Saturday, the Jets’ $72.5 million cornerback was mostly on the opposite side of the field from one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL.
Instead of Trumaine Johnson, it was Morris Claiborne trying — unsuccessfully — to stop DeAndre Hopkins from carrying the Texans to a 29-22 win over the Jets at MetLife Stadium.
Hopkins had his way on the game-winning drive, catching three passes for 41 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown, and drawing a key holding penalty on Claiborne that helped extend the possession. But the next morning, Jets coach Todd Bowles was not second-guessing his decision to play his cornerbacks on their sides — Johnson on the left and Claiborne on the right — as opposed to keeping Johnson on Hopkins all game.
“They move [Hopkins] around quite a bit,” Bowles said on a conference call Sunday. “It’s not just DeAndre, it’s the matchups all over the field. We were doing fine left and right. Mo makes his share of plays as well and we have all the confidence in the world in him. DeAndre just made some plays.”
One too many for the Jets.
Hopkins finished with 10 catches (on 11 targets) for 170 yards and two touchdowns. He beat Johnson a few times when they were matched up, but Claiborne was in the spotlight late.
The Texans ran eight plays on the game-winning drive and Deshaun Watson targeted Hopkins on four of them. The only one he didn’t catch was when he drew the penalty on Claiborne, which came on a third-and-4 from the Jets’ 49-yard line. Watson’s pass sailed out of bounds as the referee threw his flag for holding.
“I thought he threw the flag so late,” Bowles said. “You can make a case almost every play when two guys are fighting. DeAndre’s a big, strong guy, but the ball was not catchable or anything else. But on a holding call, it doesn’t matter whether the ball is catchable or not.”
Claiborne was adamant he did not commit a penalty. There was contact on both sides, but Bowles said he believes that referees are taught to call it on the defenders first.
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Johnson, meanwhile, had shown up on the injury report Thursday with what Bowles described as a “sore foot” and was officially listed as questionable coming into the game, but played anyway. According to the NFL Network broadcast, Hopkins is the receiver teams “travel” with the most — assigning their No. 1 corner to follow him — but Johnson didn’t play that role Saturday.
All the Jets were left with was more frustration after seeing another potential win slip away in the final minutes, only two weeks after suffering the same fate against the Titans. Safety Jamal Adams claimed after the game that the losing didn’t make the Jets a bad football team, but Bowles knows what the record says.
“We’re a 4-10 football team,” Bowles said. “We compete our butts off but no moral victories for playing hard. We got to win ballgames.”
The Jets defense had put itself in a position to do so for much of the game before Hopkins took over. It had six sacks on Watson and forced the Texans to settle for five field goals, but because the defense couldn’t come up with a stop when it mattered most, it was of little consolation.
“We got to make plays when we’re in position,” Bowles said. “We didn’t make them against Tennessee. We made them last week, we didn’t make them [Saturday]. It’s not just the one play or a penalty or the final play. It’s certain plays within that and small things and small things that we do well for 3 ¹/₂ quarters and then the fourth quarter we don’t do the same thing at the same time. Those are the things that are frustrating.”