Saints know dangers of Texans' DeAndre Hopkins and Brian Hoyer

The Saints pass defense will have its hands full slowing down the Brian Hoyer-to-DeAndre Hopkins connection. Patric Schneider/AP

METAIRIE, La. -- Houston Texans QB Brian Hoyer and receiver DeAndre Hopkins have both earned the attention of the New Orleans Saints.

Hoyer did it up close and personal, by beating the Saints last year when he was quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.

Hopkins has done it in much more spectacular fashion, by emerging as one of the NFL’s most dynamic playmakers this year.

Hopkins, still just 23 years old, ranks in the top three in the league in catches, yards and touchdown receptions this year with 76 for 1,045 and nine. The 6-foot-1, 218-pounder has six TD catches over the past five games.

“There's no one playing better at the receiver position,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “The challenges that he presents are, you’re in position with proper coverage, and yet he’s got exceptional hands, especially above his eyes. He does a really good job of high-pointing balls. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s hard to press at the line. Each game, you can see plays that turn the game around.

“There may be some others playing very well, but he’s been fantastic. So that’s a big challenge.”

The Saints saw Hopkins up close, too, in Week 3 of the preseason. Hopkins got the best of New Orleans’ top cornerback, Keenan Lewis, twice on Houston’s opening drive on that game when Lewis was still healthy.

This time around, Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux will likely draw Hopkins for most of the game. Breaux, who has an impressive combination of physicality and athleticism himself at 6-1 and 196 pounds, has handled himself very well against some of the league’s top receivers this year. But the Saints might want to offer him some help on the back end.

Hoyer, meanwhile, has operated more under the radar. But the seventh-year journeyman has been on a hot streak of his own.

Hoyer had 12 TD passes with only two interceptions during a five-week stretch from Weeks 4-8 before he suffered a concussion in Week 10. He was cleared to return this week.

“There’s a confidence level, I think, with him in the game, and you see that as a team they’re playing real well,” Payton said of the Texans, who have won three straight games and four of their last five to go from 1-4 to 5-5.

Hoyer beat the Saints in one of their most devastating losses of the season last year at Cleveland in Week 2. The Saints took a late lead after an ugly start. But Hoyer led the Browns on a game-winning field goal drive that included a fourth-and-6 conversion and a 28-yard pass when the Saints’ secondary broke down with 10 seconds remaining.

Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro mentioned that loss right away when asked about Hoyer.

“I think he’s a good quarterback. I think he can make smart decisions,” Vaccaro said. “I’m not going to sit here and say he has the rocket arm or all the things you say you want. But I think he’s a good quarterback, I think he protects the ball, I think he knows the offense. And if you give him a look, a pre-snap read, he knows where to go with the ball.”

The Saints (4-6) have been making decent quarterbacks look like superstars all season. They are on pace to allow the highest opponents’ passer rating in NFL history (116.5). They have allowed 28 touchdown passes with only four interceptions.

Over the past two losses, New Orleans gave up 4 TD passes each to Marcus Mariota and Kirk Cousins.

Both Vaccaro and Payton said that passer rating is the result of defensive problems across the board, which led to the Saints firing coordinator Rob Ryan last week.

“That all ties in with the pressure, man,” Vaccaro said of the quarterbacks’ success. “Think about us, when we were good in 2013, we had a great four-man rush, and guys couldn’t even see what the secondary was doing. And then we were covering good, and guys [rushing the passer] had more time.”

“There are a lot of things that can go together. If you’re struggling maybe on the early downs defending the run game, then obviously the job description for the opposing quarterback is going to be less difficult,” Payton said. “So I don’t know that you point to one specific area, but I think it’s overall team defense.”