For three consecutive games starting in early December, the 28-year-old posted the following numbers: A combined 28 catches, 425 yards, an average of 15.17 yards per catch and three touchdowns in games against the Seattle Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons.
ALL the latest 49ers news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on 49ers newsletter here!
But since the home win over the Falcons, Kittle has witnessed this:
- Two games of being held to just one catch.
- No games of more than 30 yards receiving.
- Zero touchdowns.
What is the reason behind the All-Pro tight end’s struggles? And is there concern from the head coach of the “People’s Tight End?”
Kyle Shanahan Explains Kittle’s lowered production
Kittle isn’t battling significant injuries. So that’s one non-reason behind the lowered numbers.
But, Kyle Shanahan pointed to the defenses that get thrown at Kittle as the reason — especially in the last two games.
In the season finale against the Los Angeles Rams with a postseason berth at stake, Kittle hauled in five passes, but was bottled to 10 yards. Kittle was held to one catch for 18 yards the following week against the Dallas Cowboys. How were the Rams and Cowboys able to slow down the imposing 6-foot-4, 250-pounder? Naturally, both teams prefer to play man coverage against tight ends — whereas Seattle and Cincinnati run more zone coverages in comparison to L.A. and Dallas.
Shanahan, though, told the Bay Area media on Monday, January 17 that defenses playing man has nothing to do with Kittle’s lesser numbers. The 41-year-old head coach believes defenses have figured out some of Kittle’s routes over the middle.
“No, that’s stuff that we work on all the time and George has done a great job of that throughout his career. The more healthy he’s gotten throughout and when he is more healthy, it helps him a lot more. But I wouldn’t say that was the issue in the game,” Shanahan said via Jennifer Lee Chan of NBC Sports Bay Area. “It’s just mixing in things when they have help over the middle, we’ve thrown to George a lot in those situations and people kind of know that, so they go to stop him there.”
How Kittle has Made up for Lack of Targets
If Kittle isn’t a force of nature on the receiving end, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s non-productive.
If his catches don’t make all the noise, his presence and pads will.
One highlight against the Rams in the 27-24 overtime win: Kittle is seen manipulating defenders like he’s setting up a block — only to go out for a pass over the middle. A wrinkle from Shanahan’s playbook:
But here’s where his pads do the talking: On this screen pass block against the Rams’ Dont’e Deayon.
And, despite again just catching one pass, Kittle shows his closet offensive lineman side by opening up this running lane:
What is the Plan for Kittle Moving Forward?
Here’s one more explanation behind Kittle not seeing the ball in the air attack: The 49ers have preferred to ground and pound opponents in the run game.
The offense tilted toward handing the football off in the wildcard win, with 38 of the 49ers’ 63 offensive plays designed runs against Dallas. Against the Rams, the 49ers ran the ball 31 times on 67 plays.
But, when the defenses dial in on Kittle, the receiving production for Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings goes up — with both receivers combining for 12 catches for 203 yards and two scores (both by Jennings) versus the Rams and 8 catches for 95 yards against the Cowboys.
Shanahan, however, isn’t promising more runs as the 49ers head to freezing temperatures inside Lambeau Field this Saturday when the ‘Niners take on the NFC’s top seed the Green Bay Packers. He also doesn’t want to use Kittle as an extra blocker either.
“We have to do a better job of finding other ways to get him the ball,” Shanahan said. “But I also know when he is attracting coverages that makes it a hell of a lot easier to get other people in some good situations. But George usually comes around. He’ll end up getting his balls.”