Why Will Fuller's status against Buffalo is a big deal for Texans

When quarterback Deshaun Watson has receiver Will Fuller in uniform, the Texans are much more dangerous and can more easily stretch defenses. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

HOUSTON -- Quarterback Deshaun Watson wasn’t exaggerating in mid-December when he was asked about the difference wide receiver Will Fuller and his speed makes for the Houston Texans' offense.

With Fuller on the field, the Texans are averaging 296.8 passing yards per game, per ESPN Stats & Information. That’s nearly cut in half without him on the field: 158.3 passing yards per game.

“Everyone knows [what Fuller adds],” Watson said. “He knows that, defensive coordinators know that, the players. He's definitely a big part of this offense and what we want to do.”

But Fuller is hurt, again. He has missed at least two games in each of his four NFL seasons. He injured his groin in Week 16 and did not play against the Titans on Sunday. He missed four games earlier this season with muscle issues. On Monday, coach Bill O'Brien said it was too early to tell whether Fuller will be on the field when the Texans host the Buffalo Bills in the opening round of the playoffs Saturday (4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN), but he said Fuller is "progressing" and "headed in a good direction."

If Fuller can't play, expect a bigger role for second-year receiver DeAndre Carter, who had a team-best six catches for 65 yards in Sunday's loss to the Titans but has 11 catches on the season.

“Really, just the next guy [needs to] step up,” Watson said. “So, if that's whoever is playing a position or has the opportunity to step in and play that role, you definitely can't be Will Fuller but you can be the best of yourself, and we're definitely going to do that.”

But clearly, that has not been the case for the Texans this season. When Fuller is not on the field, his absence is notable.

In games Fuller played in the 2019 regular season, Houston averaged 26.3 points per game, compared to 19.6 when he did not. They had an 8-3 record when he played and 2-3 when he didn't.

Fuller did not play in the Texans’ 40-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 11 or their 38-24 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Fuller had his best numbers in a Week 5 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, when he caught 14 passes for 217 yards and all three of his touchdowns this season.

Where Fuller helps the Texans the most is on downfield patterns, stretching the defense. This season, Houston has seven touchdown passes of 20 yards or longer, which is tied for ninth in the NFL. All but one came in games in which Fuller played. Two of Fuller’s three touchdowns were completions of 30 yards or more. The Texans are also tied for first in the NFL with 15 completions of 20 yards or more.

But the Texans might find it difficult to beat the Bills that way. Buffalo has allowed zero touchdowns and have five interceptions on throws of 20-plus yards downfield this season. They are the only team to not allow a touchdown on such throws this season.

The only teams with more interceptions on throws of 20 yards or longer are the New England Patriots (eight) and Minnesota Vikings (seven), according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Bills also rank second in Total QBR on such throws at 32.5.

The two teams played last season, although O’Brien was quick to point out that game “was a long time ago.” In the Week 6 game, a 20-13 Texans victory, Watson completed just 15 of 25 passes for 177 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions. Houston’s longest play in the game was a 24-yard pass to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

On Monday, O’Brien called Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White “one of the best corners we’ll play against.” According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, White was the nearest defender on just three touchdown passes last season. This year, his 84 targets are the second-most in the NFL without allowing a touchdown.

“With their scheme and their players, and how they coach and how they play, it’s very difficult to get the ball downfield,” O’Brien said. “It’s very, very difficult. They do a good job of making sure that they keep plays in front of them, no matter what coverage they’re in.”