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Film room: 49ers return to a familiar face in the absence of key players

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Has George Kittle re-emerged as the primary pass catcher for the 49ers?

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

With the injuries on offense mounting the last couple of weeks, the 49ers turned to a familiar face to carry the load once again in week six. That’s right, George Kittle. Kittle finished the day with eight receptions on eight targets for 103 yards. And proved once again how critical he is to the offense and how virtually no teams can scheme and remove him as an option for the 49ers offense. He made several crucial catches for the offense on Sunday, and though he didn’t find the end zone, he helped propel the 49ers past the Rams 20-7.

With fullback Kyle Juszczyk out for at least the next five weeks, the 49ers will have to find ways to manufacture yards in both their passing and running games, and Juszczyk was an integral part of their success through the first four games. Now head coach Kyle Shanahan will have to lean on Kittle as they slog through a presumably tougher portion of the schedule with the Panthers and Seahawks coming up later this month and next month.

The 49ers offense gained 99 yards on 41 carries against the Rams and put them in a position where they had to rely on Kittle for several crucial conversions. Kittle came through multiple times for the offense in the passing game against the Rams, but we’ll also look at his quietly excellent performance in the run game as well over the last several weeks.

Converting first downs

The 49ers won the time of possession battle 38:52 to 21:08 and this was due in large part to their success converting on third down and in general, picking up first downs. Four of Kittle’s receptions gave the 49ers a new set of downs, and two of those kept the sticks moving on third down.

Kittle is a reliable target over the middle because he gives the quarterback someone who can fight through contact at the catch point and make critical catches. As the inline tight end here, he’s running a 10-yard pivot route called “Winston.” The Rams are playing man coverage, but corner Marcus Peters overplays the vertical route and has to work back to Kittle, who’s pivoting out quickly.

Kittle hits his landmark as Peters is converging on the route, but he pivots outside as Peters initiates contact to disrupt the timing. He can’t prevent the catch, and Kittle fights through the contact to secure the pass for a 10 yard gain on third-and-3. The 49ers would later add a touchdown on that drive, thanks in no small part to Shanahan’s and Garoppolo’s trust in Kittle.

On another third-down conversion, Kittle, running a stick route, found the soft spot in the zone. The catch kept the chains moving, but the drive would eventually stall due to their $19 million kicker Robbie Gould missing one of his three field-goal attempts on the day.

On a stick route, the receiver runs up to spot about six yards downfield, plants, and pivots out on his inside foot. Here, Kittle shuffles out after his pivot away from the strong hook defender and between the flat defender and catches the pass before turning upfield.

No one can tackle him either and convert the third-and-6 into an 11 yard gain and preventing the Rams offense from taking the field for at least another set of downs. On the season, Kittle has converted 8 of 13 third-down receptions into first downs.

Yards after the catch

Kittle was a yard after the catch (YAC) monster last season. While he hasn’t had the level of production he had last season, he’s still able to manufacture yards and proven he’s hard to take down.

One of the creative ways Shanahan was able to get Kittle the ball was by lining him up as a fullback and running a corner route out of the backfield. Garoppolo executes a play-action fake as Kittle sprints through the offensive line up the seam. He cuts out on the corner route into the space vacated by the corner who ran with Goodwin’s deep post route and sprints to a 45 yard gain. It took four defenders to bring him down at the end of the play.

It doesn’t always have to be downfield in space where Kittle gets the ball either. He can create yards if you get him the ball on something as simple as a quick screen to the flat too.

Kittle takes the quick screen pass on “slammer screen to Y,” and once he gets to full speed, he’s hard to bring down and will even throw defenders out of the way to get more yards, as he does here when the Rams defender goes low to tackle, and Kittle just tosses him aside as he sprints up the sideline.

Though he hasn’t had the opportunity for yards after the catch this season, he still effective this season when called upon to get those yards.

Here against the Bengals in week two, Kittle Y-trade motions back across the formation into the inline spot on “Fake 19 Keep” (outside zone bootleg) and runs the low cross. To sell the run, Kittle angles out like he’s going to block the edge defender, shuffles down slightly to get the defender to set the edge, and breaks back across his face. He’s wide open where Garoppolo finds him at the numbers and turns upfield, where he throws two defenders aside before gaining 36.

Run blocking

The strength of the 49ers offense this season thus far has been the running game. And Kittle, just like last season, has proven his ability to block as well. It is not a trait that is easily seen on game day from the TV broadcast angle unless the viewer is focused solely on what Kittle is doing.

The 49ers did not run the ball well against the Rams, averaging 2.4 yards per carry. However, that did not prevent Kittle from showing why he’s an effective run blocker. On the first play, the 49ers are running power to the right. They motion Levine Toilolo over to the strong side with Kittle to create an unbalanced front.

Kittle blocks down on defensive end Michael Brockers before “scoop” blocking up to the second level to block Troy Reeder (#51). He takes Reeder to the ground with a bit of an assist from guard Laken Tomlinson, but Kittle has put blockers on their backs without help too, as you’ll soon see below.

In the second clip, the Kittle kicks out the defensive end Morgan Fox and shows his ability to stick on a block for what would be long enough to spring the runner free if given a chance. The key to his block is getting inside the leverage of the defender and controlling him through his chest plate, not allowing the defender to get any leverage and keeping him off balance.

Inline blocker

This season, he’s been a vital run blocker for the 49ers in the run game, has shown explosive physical strength, and an ability to make key blocks to spring the runner free for a big gain.

George Kittle is perhaps the most dynamic run-blocking tight end in the NFL, even with Rob Gronkowski a few games removed for retirement. Pay particular attention to his ability to create leverage with his hand usage and placement (inside the defender on the chest plate), allowing him to gain the advantage of an anchor in the run game.

Blocker in space

He’s also an elite blocker in space, where he uses a combination of speed and power to drive blockers into the dirt. His usage as a blocker is a luxury most teams do not have with their tight end as most cannot block effectively in space and in line, which also serves him well in the wide zone-blocking scheme.


George Kittle’s role just became more important than ever over the next several weeks with fullback Kyle Juszczyk not expected to return until at least week 11 or 12. We’re also likely to see tight end Levine Toilolo take a more active role in the running game, as his usage saw an uptick on Sunday against the Rams with Juszczyk out as well.

There are certainly creative ways for Shanahan to get Kittle more involved and open downfield as a receiver, and we’re likely to see more of that approach as the offense gets comfortable without their fullback. And one of those ways is using Kittle out wide more in the slot, which could relieve some pressure on the passing game and open some other targets as well.