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Kittle, Deebo, and the Derrick Henry effect

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In a copycat league, Kittle can be Henry, and Deebo can be Taysom Hill

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Derrick Henry. Deshaun Watson. Adam Thielen. Russell Wilson. What the Wildcard round proved is that if you have a player that can dominate no matter the situation or surroundings, you have a chance. The San Francisco 49ers have more than a chance against the Minnesota Vikings as they’re favored by seven points. The Niners are favored for a few reasons. Not only are they battle-tested against the best teams in the league, but they won 13 games after overcoming a series of injuries, and did so without really playing their “best” brand of football.

Speaking of having a “guy,” the 49ers have the best “guy” at his position, in George Kittle. According to ESPN’s Field Yates, Kittle had 85 catches on without a single drop this year (34 more than any other TE.) Kittle also led the NFL in receiving yards after contact (252) and was the most dominant blocker at the position. I was asked on a podcast what makes Kittle so good. He’s a big, strong guy that can outrun the majority of players defending him, but I don’t think that’s what makes Kittle the best. It’s his attitude. His relentlessness. Kittle is the aggressor. Figuratively speaking, he punches guys in the mouth from the very first snap and doesn’t let up for the next 60 snaps. We can go through every 49ers game this season where Kittle isn’t just blocking; he’s burying guys into the ground. You can see on some replays he’s grinning from ear to ear as he’s blocking a guy into the dirt. It’s ruthless.

The Henry effect

Kittle’s as a blocker in both the running game and passing game allows the 49ers to be versatile and hit the big play. That’s not why he’s here. Using PFF’s data, over the last three seasons, only four non-running backs have broken more than 20 tackles in a season. Golden Tate did it in 2017-18. Lamar Jackson did it this season. The other two? Deebo Samuel and Kittle. Henry broke six tackles against the Patriots, and I bring him up because the further along the game went, the more “business decisions” we saw from New England.

Kittle seeks contact. He embraces it. Kittle dares you to tackle him, knowing that it’s not something you really want to do. The Vikings are a sound tackling team. They only missed a tackle on 7.7% of plays this season, which was the second-fewest in the NFL per Football Outsiders. It’s all about one game, though. Against the Saints, the Vikings missed ten tackles. Five of those came from Taysom Hill on four carries. This game has the makings for all the yards after contact for San Francisco.

We know Kyle Shanahan is going to scheme guys open. What’s made the offense so dangerous is the guys on the receiving end don’t just create after the ball is in their hands, they maximize yardage. Sticking with Samuel and Kittle, Deebo goes 100 mph. He gets ahead of steam and makes a habit out of running through arm tackles. Samuel broke a tackle on 39% of his touches. The next closest non-Kittle player was Jarvis Landry, at 27%. That’s an absurd number, and you have to imagine it’s something Shanahan takes advantage of. After watching Taysom Hill, how can you not? What makes Deebo tough to tackle is he doesn’t lose speed when he’s changing directions. You think you have an angle, but you don’t.

As for Kittle, he’s going to be 30 pounds heavier than most people tackling him down the field. Don’t think for one-second defenders aren’t aware of his “I’m going to run through you whether you like it or not” mentality. It wears on you, which is why both players will be heavily involved Sunday. It’s the Henry effect.