Almost at the finish line, we break into the two most impressive individual performances from the 49ers 2021 campaign.
As a refresher, the factors I used to create this list include how did each performance hold up with the eye test. After going back and watching the game film, was it as impressive now as it was at the time?
I also heavily weighed the game’s impact, meaning the stakes of each contest played a pivotal role in how these rankings ultimately played out—finally, good old-fashioned statistics. So while the eye test was the primary factor being weighed, I also made it a point to place enough emphasis on the objective numbers a player posted in their respective games.
Without further ado, number two on the list:
George Kittle - Week 14 @ Cincinnati
In a recent poll conducted by ESPN, league executives, coaches, scouts, and players voted 49ers tight end George Kittle as the best at his position in the entire NFL. Games like this are why Kittle is so widely respected among league circles, and why the argument for him being TE1 holds so much weight.
Kittle dominated this game in every facet, demonstrating immense value as both a receiver and a blocker. Whether it was moving the chains through the air or steamrolling Bengals defenders to open up running lanes in the ground game, Kittle left no doubt that he was the best player on the field in a pivotal December matchup between two teams who both went on deep playoff runs a month later.
The 49ers' superstar tight end caught 13 - yes you read that right - 13 balls in this game, and I am going to include a cut-up of each and every one of them in this article. I am also going to highlight some plays that highlight how valuable Kittle is as a blocker and put the cherry on top of what was one of the most complete performances from a tight end in recent memory.
Kittle made his presence felt immediately in this game, taking Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson for a ride on the left side while blocking for running back Jeff Wilson Jr. The play didn’t net any positive yardage, but on an individual level, Kittle did his part to hold his own on the edge.
Kittle recorded the first of his 13 receptions at the 11:40 mark first quarter, with the 49ers facing a second and three from their own 27-yard line. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is under center with Wilson Jr. as the lone back in the backfield and fakes a run to Wilson Jr. on the left side.
Once again, Kittle engages with Hubbard, helping sell the run fake before leaking out in the flat where Garoppolo hit him just shy of the 30-yard line. Kittle then turns up the field, breaking a tackle before crossing the line to gain and picking up what would be the first of many first down conversions in this game.
Next up with 8:53 remaining in the first quarter, the 49ers faced a second and six from the Bengals 19-yard line. Kyle Shanahan calls a fake toss to the right side, with Kittle running a drag across the formation back to his left. Garoppolo delivers the ball to Kittle in space, but Bengals safety Jessie Bates is able to wrap Kittle up with what was likely a touchdown-saving tackle, limiting the gain to a couple of yards.
I liked Shanahan's play design on this one, as Kittle is set up perfectly to get the ball in space and create after the catch, which is one of his greatest strengths. You just have to tip your cap to Bates on this one, who did something many defenders in the NFL struggle with, tackling Kittle one-on-one in the open field. End zone angle shows how much green grass was ahead of Kittle if he didn’t make this play.
Up next is a sequence of four consecutive plays that highlight Kittle's versatility as a run blocker. With 14:40 remaining in the second quarter, the 49ers face a second and six at midfield. Garoppolo is in the gun flanked by Wilson Jr. on his right, with Kittle lined up outside of Trent Williams on the left side.
Garoppolo hands off to Wilson, and what makes this rep so special for Kittle is the way he pulls like a guard on this play. The agility and power Kittle has as he pulls from the C gap on the left side to the B gap on the right side is a beyond rare trait among tight ends.
Watch how Kittle is able to get into the B gap and obstruct Bengals linebacker Germain Pratt from making a clean tackle on Wilson Jr., which in turn nets additional yardage on this carry that would have otherwise been much more difficult to come by.
On the very next play, Kittle again is going to land a key block on a Bengals defender to buy a window for Wilson Jr. to run through. First and ten from the Bengals ' yard line, and Wilson Jr. is going to show tremendous vision and awareness on this play, cutting all the way from the B gap on the left side, which had a Bengals defender waiting to fill, and deciding to revert back to the A Gap on the right side of the center.
While Kittle is moving laterally to his left, he identifies Wilson Jr.’s intent to cut back towards his direction. Kittle then turns his body to cut off Hubbard on the back side pursuit and create a running lane for Wilson Jr. to get through cleanly. I slowed it down a bit from the end zone angle to give a better look.
The instincts and situational awareness at that moment are incredible. Kittle’s ability to make that kind of adjustment on the fly is the difference between this run going for little to no gain and picking up the twelve yards and first down that it did.
Then on first and ten from the 29, the 49ers will run the same play they did when Kittle pulled a couple of plays prior, but with some minor adjustments. This time the play will be flipped, and Kittle will be pulling from right to left, and Deebo Samuel and Wilson Jr. swap places with Samuel in the backfield and Wilson Jr. motioning pre-snap.
The play only goes for a couple of yards, but once again Kittle shows his lateral agility while pulling, finished off with a combo block in the hole with Laken Tomlinson.
Finally, on second and eight from the Bengals 27 yard line, we get a big splash play that results in a touchdown for the 49ers' offense. Shanahan is going to roll out essentially the exact same formation that he did on the previous play, but this time Samuel is going to be running outside to the right side, with Kittle blocking the frontside defensive end while the guard and center pull to the outside.
Kittle does an excellent job of holding the edge while engaging Hubbard on the play side until the two collide with Jauan Jennings and create a pileup that takes multiple Bengals defenders out of this play.
On a side note, this sequence really demonstrates just how incredible Kyle Shanahan is at sequencing plays. He showed the same look pre-snap on three separate plays in this drive, making minor adjustments based on how the defense reacted to the previous looks he showed.
Short runs for little or no gain may not be exciting, but often there is a method to the madness, and these plays are used as a way for Shanahan to gauge how a defense will respond to a certain motion or blocking scheme, etc.
What the Cincinnati defense showed Shanahan on that two-yard run on first down led directly to the 27-yard touchdown on the very next play. Those kinds of setup plays are just as important to the success of the 49ers' offense as the big gains and scoring plays that come after.
On the 49ers' next drive, they have a first and ten from their own 21-yard line. Similar to the play mentioned earlier, Garoppolo is going to fake a hand-off to the left side, while Kittle sells the run on the right side before leaking into the flat.
This play only picked up six yards, but it really stands out how many Bengals defenders it takes to bring down Kittle. I remember watching this live and instantly getting flashbacks to the game against the Saints in New Orleans back in 2019.
Later in the second quarter, with 25 seconds remaining in the first half, the 49ers had the ball deep in Cincinnati territory. On first and ten from the Bengals 14-yard line, Kittle motions pre-snap from an inline position the left side to the slot on the right.
Garoppolo takes the snap in the gun, and Kittle runs an in-breaking route that angles towards the pylon as he makes his break about five yards upfield. Garoppolo hits Kittle inside the five-yard line, and Kittle is able to secure the ball while maintaining his balance to reach out for the pylon and break the plane for a 49ers touchdown.
It takes tremendous control to be able to secure that ball through the ground and maintain possession while crossing the goal line. We also got an emphatic celebration spike from one of the most electric personalities in the sport, which served as a humble to reminder to all that football is fun.
Fast forward to the second half, and yet another play showcases Kittle’s impact in the run game. The 49ers' offense is facing first, and ten from their own 47-yard line, and Kittle is lined up inline to the outside of Williams on the left side. Garoppolo hands to Wilson Jr., who picks up six on the play.
Here is this rep from the end zone angle, watch the way Kittle gets to the second level to takeout Pratt, and seal off the backside to create a running lane for Wilson Jr.
If not for Bengals linebacker Joe Batchie making an incredible play to get on the inside shoulder of Dan Brunskill as he pulls, this play likely goes for a huge gain. Six yards on first down is still an objective success but on an individual level. However, Kittle’s execution on this rep was perfect.
Fast forward a couple of plays, and the 49ers are facing a first and ten from the Bengals ' yard line. Shanahan will call an RPO (run-pass option) that will have Kittle run a quick slant called ‘Dart’ from the inline spot outside of the right tackle.
Garoppolo hits Kittle on the quick slant, who then picks up an additional 12-13 yards after the catch, showing off his ability to wreak havoc on opposing defenses in the open field while picking up yet another first down for this 49ers offense.
Later on this same drive, the 49ers' offense faced third and thirteen from the Bengals ' yard line. Kittle is lined up on the left side, being shaded by Bates with safety Ricardo Allen over the top. Bates ends up blitzing, which leaves Kittle one on one with Allen.
Kittle runs a shallow post that sees him break in at an angle about seven or eight yards upfield, well ahead of Allen, who is playing off coverage that gifted Kittle the inside leverage to the open space in the middle of the field.
Garoppolo hits Kittle just shy of the line to gain, and then Kittle picks up a few yards after the catch to move the chains and get the 49ers offense a fresh set of downs.
At 13:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, the 49ers' offense is facing a second and twenty from their own 37-yard line. Kittle is lined up inline on the right hash outside of right tackle Tom Compton. Kittle runs a ‘Scout’ route, which has him sell the go up the seam for ten yards before pivoting inside to work back down the stem.
Garoppolo times this throw perfectly and hits Kittle as he pivots back towards the quarterback for a gain of ten of yards.
Later in the fourth quarter, Shanahan again goes back to a play-action fake with Kittle leaking into the flat on the backside. Garoppolo hits Kittle just inside the numbers on the far side, but this time the star tight end has room to turn upfield and pick up a sizable chunk of yardage after the catch for a 15-yard gain.
Late in the fourth quarter, with 2:55 to go, the 49ers were hanging on to a 20-13 lead while facing a third and ten from their own 29-yard line. Kittle lines up in a bunch formation to the left side and runs a “Drag China’ route, which has him sell the drag over the middle before pivoting and bursting back outside.
Garoppolo hits Kittle as he breaks outside to the left, and Kittle nearly picks up the first down before being taken down just short of the line to gain.
Next up, was arguably the play of the game, in what was a masterful performance all around from Kittle. The game is all tied up with 20 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the 49ers facing a third and ten from their own 48-yard line. The 49ers had to have this conversion if there was going to be any hope of winning this game in regulation.
Kittle is lined up in the slot inside the numbers on the far side. Shanahan is going to call the “Flag Bow’ concept, which has Kittle run a Flag route with sells the stem inside, push vertical to ten yards before breaking to the outside.
Kittle is matched up with Bengals safety Von Bell, who is tasked with covering Kittle in man coverage on this play. As Kittle breaks towards the sideline, Garoppolo throws a ball in his direction that sails a little bit higher than the ideal spot you’d like it to be. That was no problem for Kittle whatsoever.
Kittle fully extends to make a breathtaking catch before being touched down at the Bengals' 30-yard line, moving the chains and putting the 49ers in field goal range to have a shot at kicking a game-winning field goal as time expires.
Now, allow me to state the obvious. Kittle going up and getting this ball while maintaining possession in itself is remarkable on its own. Fourth quarter, on the road, against an incredibly talented team, and you make that catch while matched up with an extremely talented safety in Bell? This was a moment when all the chips were on the table, and Kittle being the superstar he is, delivered in the biggest way possible when his team needed it most.
Just for good measure, I slowed down this play from the end zone angle, so you can watch Kittle make this catch as many times as your heart desires, while enjoying it in all of its glory.
What might have gone unnoticed, however, was the way Kittle utilized his route-running savvy to create the separation needed for Garoppolo to feel comfortable throwing the ball his way in the first place.
As Kittle is working up the stem vertically, he will turn his head to the inside and sell a dig route that would break back in over the middle, making Bell hesitate for a moment. This allows Kittle to then turn to the outside and burst as he rolls to the sideline, with the needed step on Bell for his quarterback to let the ball rip in his direction.
Watch here for the head turn just before he breaks out of his stem
This was pure and utter brilliance by Kittle in this play. From the crisp route running to the spectacular catch, it was simply remarkable.
The only real downside was that the field goal attempt that followed didn’t go through the uprights, which led to additional football being played, and Kittle’s catch not being celebrated the way it would have had it directly led to a walk-off field goal.
The upside, however, was that during the overtime period, we got to see more of Kittle as he put the finishing touches on this masterpiece. Starting with the 49ers' first play on offense during the extra period, a first and ten from their own 25-yard line.
Shanahan dials up a play-action look that has Kittle sell the run before sitting down in the vacant space between the hashes that was devoid of Bengals defenders. Garoppolo hits Kittle over the middle, and the 49ers' offense picks up eight yards. A solid start to what would ultimately be the game-winning drive.
Following a timely connection from Garoppolo and Jennings, the 49ers found themselves in Bengals territory with about five minutes left to play. On first and ten from the 47-yard line, Kittle runs a ‘Drift’ route, that has him break in over the middle after pushing vertically for about ten yards.
Garoppolo throws downfield and hits Kittle just outside the nearside hash for a pickup of 21 yards, on a play that put the 49ers well within kicker Robbie Gould’s range. This left some level of comfort knowing that the 49ers were no longer in four-down territory, and had the fallback option of attempting to tie the game with one of the most reliable kickers in the sport.
Finally, the last of Kittle’s 13 receptions on the day once again came in a huge spot for this 49ers' offense. Facing a third down at the Bengals 21-yard line, the 49ers badly needed this conversion to avoid the risk of giving the ball back to the Bengals' offense, likely without enough time to string together another drive of their own even if they tied the game with a field goal.
Kittle is going to run a quick three-step slant from the left side as Garoppolo hits him with a great throw inside an open window over the middle to move the chains.
On the very next play, Garoppolo hits Aiyuk for the game-winning touchdown, and the 49ers come out of Cincinnati with a thrilling overtime victory on the road against the eventual AFC Champions.
Kittle finished this game with 13 catches for 151 yards, with eight of those receptions resulting in a first down or touchdown. Here is his final tally from the game
55 yards after the catch
7 first downs
This incredible performance came just a week after Kittle went for 181 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a tough loss in Seattle, putting the exclamation point on one of the most dominant two-week stretches we have ever seen a tight end in the NFL.
Kittle once again proved why he is not only among the most valuable at his own position, but rightfully among a very select group of offensive weapons who are truly game-changing threats every time they step on the football field.
Stay tuned for the number one and final spot on the list, coming soon.
Here is the up-to-date list so far.
#2 George Kittle @ Cincinnati Week 14