Once the Texans put in Will Fuller to return a punt, the game changed.
Brock Osweiler and the Texans offense got off to a roaring start with Bill O'Brien calling plays.
Brock Osweiler isn't exactly living up to the promise of his $72 million contract.
Will Fuller still hasn’t found a good cheesesteak in Houston. Heck, the 22-year-old Philly kid would settle for a serviceable one at this point. “I’m looking,” Fuller says. “Anytime I go home, I always go eat a cheesesteak.”
Fuller is never going to find a cheesesteak in Texas worthy of Pat’s. Or even Geno’s. Passyunk Ave is not coming to Kirby Drive. Still, even if this quest is futile, it looks like it will be the only mission Fuller does not successfully complete in his rookie season with the Houston Texans. For Fuller’s already winning games and pulling the $72 Million Quarterback from fires of the QB’s own making.
The Texans had two major things going for them in Sunday afternoon’s AFC South game with the Tennessee Titans: Bill O’Brien’s coaching and Will Fuller’s electric speed. It turned out to be enough for a 27-20 win, a 3-1 record, and an early stranglehold on the NFL’s worst division. On a day when DeAndre Hopkins would catch only one pass for four yards, a day when a J.J. Watt-less defense allowed the only team with an offense ranked as poorly as the Texans’ coming into the game to put up a season-high 20 points, a day when Brock Osweiler threw two more ugly interceptions, Fuller changed everything with one burst.
He caught a third-quarter punt, made one quick cut through the middle of the field and went racing up the sideline, right into the end zone. “That was big,” O’Brien says. “Obviously, the game-winning play.”
For the second straight game, it became apparent that it’s possible to scheme away even Hopkins’ superhuman gifts. Pure speed is sometimes harder to corral, though. Especially in the careful hands of a gifted coach.
“It’s like watching a cheetah chase down something down,” Osweiler says of Fuller’s burst. It’s rare for even the NFL, where freakish athletes are the norm. A product of Notre Dame, Fuller became only the fourth rookie in the past 15 years to score a receiving touchdown and a punt return touchdown in the same game, joining Dez Bryant, T.Y. Hilton and Tavon Austin. That’s impressive company to keep. Will Fuller is another one of often-maligned Texans general manager Rick Smith’s receiver draft gems.
“It’s that quickness that really makes us still say ‘Wow’ when we see it,” team owner Bob McNair says. “He’s special.”
On a day when DeAndre Hopkins’ fantasy football team owners lost their minds at his lack of production, Houston found another solution.
A Coaching Game-Changer
The Texans don’t have J.J. Watt, but they still have Bill O’Brien. Against teams as challenged as the Titans, that just may be enough. Bob McNair’s handpicked coach continues to show he’s one of the more innovative and adaptable leaders in the NFL. O’Brien will give these flawed Texans a chance. And he’ll keep looking for a new way, any edge that can make a difference.
Like putting Fuller in as the punt returner.
It does not take an analytics genius to realize that the fastest rookie in the NFL might be a great fit in any open field situation. But the Texans still picked the perfect time to finally break it out, locked in a 20-20 game late in the third quarter. Tennessee’s punt coverage team looked completely unprepared for Fuller’s dynamic speed (an NFL Combine-best 4.32 seconds in the 40-yard dash). Part of that comes from Fuller waiting until the last possible minute to take the field with the return team.
“That was by design,” Fuller says of the wait. Cobras don’t set up their prey that well. And that’s just part of O’Brien’s impact.
With O’Brien calling plays for the first time since the 2014 season, the Texans offense suddenly became dynamic. They went no-huddle. They passed on first down. They came out in unusual formations. They remembered there is such a thing in pro football as a tight end. They didn’t just try to throw up every pass for Hopkins. For a change, Houston’s attack wasn’t as predictable as a bad romance novel.
It all resulted in two long touchdown drives in the Texans’ first two possessions. Osweiler went 9 for 10 for 112 yards and two touchdowns on those drives. A tight end actually caught a touchdown (C.J. Fiedorowicz), and another tight end actually broke free for a 34-yard gain (Ryan Griffin).
In the days leading up to the game, O’Brien swore that him calling the plays “doesn’t matter.” It mattered. It changed everything. Until it didn’t.
For after the Texans got out of the scripted portion of the game plan, their old offensive problems came nagging back. Missed blocks here, there, and everywhere. An Osweiler interception. Then another. Wayward passes. A delay of game penalty right after a timeout. Soon, that 14-0 lead turned into 17-17 and 20-20 ties and the old dread seeped back into the NRG Stadium stands.
Then, the day suddenly got a whole lot Fuller.
“I’m prouder and prouder of him every game,” Hopkins says. And damn, if Hopkins doesn’t seem genuinely happy for his rookie. “I see you, Will Fuller!” another Texans teammate calls out as Fuller tries to quietly retreat to his locker post-win. The entire NFL sees him now.
Maybe it will be enough to make Pat’s deliver. Cross country.