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Gold Standard: How much will George Kittle’s return help the 49ers against the Cardinals?

Kittle has had plenty of recent success against Arizona before this season

With Deebo Samuel aggravating his calf injury, the 49ers’ offense could be down their biggest weapon going into their most crucial game of the season on Sunday. Fortunately for them, they’re also set to welcome back George Kittle after a month-long absence. On today’s Gold Standard Podcast, Levin Black and I wondered how much Kittle would help if he gets back on the field this week.

“I’m not expecting Kittle to come in and look like [2018] Kittle when he set the single-season receiving record for tight ends,” Levin said, “But he’s a legitimate threat that the defense accounts for. Even when he wasn’t putting up big stats earlier this year, he wasn’t terrible. He just wasn’t dominant. That’s because the defense was literally keying on him, and that’s the effect he will have.”

If Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk are all active on Sunday (and assuming Aiyuk is back in Kyle Shanahan’s good graces), the 49ers could have a very dangerous offense. But, even if Deebo is severely limited or can’t play at all, the 49ers should still be able to move the ball - so long as they allow Aiyuk to do so.

As Levin said, no defensive coordinator is going to leave Kittle single covered, especially if Samuel can’t play, which should give Aiyuk one-on-one opportunities. So now would be the perfect time for number 11 to start fulfilling the promise we all thought he showed after a successful rookie year.

Not to mention the fact that George’s return will also help the ground game, regardless of whether Elijah Mitchell or Trey Sermon starts at running back. Jeff Wilson Jr. could play in this game, but I doubt Kyle Shanahan would start him right out of the gate after so much time away from the field. Nonetheless, we all know what a successful running attack does for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and the odds of that being the case on Sunday are definitely improved with the People’s Tight End back in the lineup and blocking like a mad man.

The real question, for me, will come in the red zone. Whether it’s due to route running issues, quarterback issues, or just a lack of opportunity, Kittle just hasn’t produced in this area anywhere close to his peers. He has yet to receive a single red-zone target in his four games in 2021 and has only gotten three since the start of last year. With Deebo down or limited in this game, the 49ers are going to need George to deliver where it counts the most - regardless of whether he’s double-teamed.

There are a ton of things we still don’t know about Sunday’s game, and not just from the 49ers side of things. Kyler Murray is banged up. DeAndre Hopkins is banged up. AJ Green was placed on the COVID list earlier this week. Kyle Shanahan should be able to count on George Kittle making an impact on this game. How much and where, though, remains to be seen.

Other topics in this episode

  • Is Brandon Aiyuk officially back?
  • Given the veterans on this offense, why has the run blocking just now gotten back on track?
  • When will the 49ers finally play a game that doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat all afternoon?