While Kittle’s status for Week 12 is still uncertain, the 49ers receiving leader was back at practice Thursday for non-contact drills with optimism circling that he will be able to play against Green Bay on Sunday night. He stands to be quite the difference-maker against a Packers defense that is 27th in the NFL against tight ends.
“I think he’s in the conversation as certainly one of the best, if not the best tight end in football. He’s a more-than-adequate, more-than-willing blocker and this is a guy that has borderline wide receiver-type speed. He’s got great ball skills, difficult to tackle. He breaks a lot of tackles. He’s violent after the catch. And, you know, he’s got a good relationship with the quarterback and, on top of that, a coordinator that … can get him open.
“So, it’s as big a tight end challenge as we’ll have and that’s something that — it’s been well-documented — we need to be better.”
While the Packers as a whole are sporting an 8-2 record and in good playoff shape coming off the bye and into Sunday night’s matchup, Pettine’s unit has needed to clean up some issues that he has described as “defensive lapses.” Stopping the run and limiting explosive plays are two of the highest priorities, but shutting down effective tight ends has also not been a strong suit for the Packers.
Opposing tight ends have tallied 627 yards and five touchdowns this year against the Packers, with Carolina’s Greg Olsen most recently making eight catches for 98 yards in Week 10. Hunter Henry (seven catches, 87 yards) and Trace Kelce (four catches, 63 yards, 1 TD) were also both moderately successful. Oakland’s Darren Waller has done the most damage with seven catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns during the Packers’ 42-24 win in Week 7.
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Pettine Spent Bye Focused on Big-Gain Plays
The Packers defense, while more talented this season, has still shown weaknesses throughout the middle portion of the season in terms of allowing big-yardage plays to opposing offenses. Their last four opponents have combined for 54 plays of 10 yards or more with 11 of those plays going for at least 25 yards.
“The big thing for us, and probably the biggest project I did (during the bye week), you’re just studying the explosives and just taking the notes of, ‘OK, why did this happen?'” Pettine told reporters Thursday afternoon. “Was it something schematic? Was it something technique-wise? Was it a personnel issue? Or sometimes it was, hey, it was a good play by them. That’s going to happen a good percentage of the time, too. It was being able to just kind of sit back and look at it from a different perspective and see it all together.”
Kittle will certainly challenge how much they’ve been able to improve in that regard. He has catches of more than 20 yards in five of eight games played this season, averaging 11.8 yards per catch with a team-high 541 receiving yards this season.
While the Packers’ defense has declined since the season’s start, Pettine said strength in two crucial areas has kept him encouraged the Packers can still become one of the better units in the league once they sort out their issues.
“It’s points and takeaways,” Pettine said, “and I think those are two areas where we have improved and I think if we can get some of the other things headed in the right direction or just cleaned up, we have a chance to be pretty good.”