It was a great year for San Francisco 49ers tight end sensation George Kittle. He set an NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end, and he also led the NFL in yards after the catch. He was named second team All Pro and earned a Pro Bowl nod — eventually starting the game.
The question has since been posed, how did Kittle achieve such astronomical numbers? Are Kittle’s numbers a by product of Kyle Shanahan’s offense genius, or is he simply an athletic specimen that turned simple gains into big yardage? The answer to that question isn’t as cut and dry and you might assume. In looking at last season’s footage, the answer lies somewhere in the middle of both. Shanahan does a great job of clearing out lanes for Kittle to not only get open but subsequently run for solid yardage after the catch. There’s also instances on the tape where Kittle is simply too fast, or too strong to be brought down by the first tackler. He turns short catches into long gains. This article shows some examples of both scenarios and how Kittle broke out as one of the best tight ends in the league.
Let’s look at Kittle’s success for the perspective that he’s a byproduct of Shanahan’s genius. Kyle did a good job last season of using deep targets like Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis to pull defensive backs far away from the line of scrimmage. At the same time he used Kyle Juszczyk and Matt Breida to keep linebackers occupied. This often left Kittle wide open, or single covered with room to run.
Week 1 versus Minnesota. Off play action Kittle comes across the formation and is open in the shallow flat. Notice the two wide receivers running deep routes on the side of the field Kittle is attacking. Once he catches the ball those defenders are already 10-15 yards away from the play and allow and easy catch and run.
The very next play, the 49ers run the same action, just to the opposite side of the field. It nets the same result, easy catch and run. In this example Goodwin lines up inside and attacks the deep safety with his speed. This forces the safety to have to run around him to get to Kittle by then he’s picked up ten plus yards.
Versus the Chargers another great example of play design. Kittle is positioned next to Joe Staley at the end of the line. Juszczyk leaks down the middle of the formation and attracts the attention of both inside backers, because Kittle initially blocks instead of going right into his pattern he isn’t marked by a defender. After he chips the rusher he’s left wide open on his side of the field. Again deep routes by the outside receivers stretches the defense vertically. A quick pass nets him several yards after the catch because there isn’t a defender near him.
Versus the Giants, we have yet another solid play design. Juszczyk attracts the attention of both inside backers, so once Kittle shakes his defender there’s no one to cover his in-breaking route. He’s able to make the catch easily and run for another five plus yards.
Versus Denver, we have a great flood route concept. Kittle starts out wide at the top of the screen and motions in. With the defenders switching this tells Nick Mullens the Broncos are probably in zone coverage. At the snap Kendrick Bourne presses the secondary with a deep route. At the same time Juszczyk sprints to the flat, this leaves a void in the zone for Kittle on the deep out. Again with Bourne pressing the deep route once Kittle catches the ball, there’s no defender close enough to tackle him.
With that being said, there’s some instances where Kittle simply out runs defenders and shows why he’s more than your run of the mill pass catching tight end. He’s a true game breaker. He’s too fast for linebackers, and too strong for safeties to bring down. In our next clip we have examples of both. First off all this an excellent out and in route by Kittle. At the catch he outruns the angle and loses the safety covering him. The next DB tries an arm tackle and almost loses a shoulder. He then again nearly out runs a defender who makes a shoe string tackle to bring him down just before goal line. Kittle’s exceptional size and speed are on full display here.
There’s been several plays this season where Kittle showed once he gets the ball he’s a threat to go all the way. Versus the Chargers Kittle runs and out and up that ends up as a 85 yard touchdown pass. Initially he beats the zone coverage with the out and up. It looks to be a simply gain for about 20 yards. Kittle however plants his foot and starts to pick up the speed. The deep safety can’t keep up, Kittle runs by him into the end zone. We saw instances like this all season where players thought they were in position but quickly found they couldn’t hang.
Next season we can expect a big target on Kittle’s back. The offense will need to develop additional weapons on the outside to force defenses to pick their poison. Also i’d like to see Kittle do better in the red zone. As a big bodied target you would hope he would have more chances in the end zone at jump balls and mismatches but he wasn’t used much. I can only hope to see Kyle continue to develop this offense into a potent machine but as we learned from this season, we’re only as good as our health will allow us to be. Go Niners!