The San Francisco 49ers are in the Super Bowl, where they’ll face the Kansas City Chiefs, and that’s thanks in large part to the play of George Kittle. The third-year tight end out of Iowa can do everything coach Kyle Shanahan asks of him, from being the team’s primary receiver to paving the way for one the league’s best rushing attacks.
Kittle was used primarily as a blocker in college, but in the NFL he’s been one of, if not the best, tight end since he entered the league.
Last year, Kittle broke the NFL single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,377 yards. This season, Kittle passed Rob Gronkowski and Mike Ditka for most receiving yards in a tight end’s first three seasons (2,780 career yards).
Among tight ends with 50-plus targets this season, Kittle is third in yards per target (9.65), first in catch percentage (79.3), and seventh in yards per reception (12.16). He’s also third in receiving yards (888), trailing only Darren Waller and Travis Kelce.
But he’s more than just a reliable receiver. He’s a player who defenses have to account for on every snap. He brutalizes linebackers in coverage, and he throws down multiple punishing blocks each week. At times, it felt like Kittle single-handedly carried the 49ers into the postseason.
Below, we’re going to show you what makes him so good in the passing game, as well as some of his most disrespectful blocks.
Kittle is as dangerous a receiver as a tight end can be
Kittle has developed at a rapid pace, particularly as a pass catcher. Like many big-bodied receivers, Kittle is dangerous when he gets the ball and room to run, but he’s also a competent route runner who is more than capable of getting behind a defense.
He makes his money rumbling through defenders and causing havoc, though every now and then he finds the hole in a defense, especially if you try to put a linebacker on him.
That’s Kittle quickly running up the seam with nobody in the same zip code. The underneath linebacker was ostensibly in coverage, and even tried to jump and get his hand on the pass from Jimmy Garoppolo. He didn’t come close, though, and Kittle scored a 22-yard touchdown against the Browns.
In fact, Kittle is so disruptive all over the field that the wreckage he creates can break open plays for those around him.
We’ll talk about his work as a blocker a bit later, but first enjoy him beating a defender so bad that Marquise Goodwin caught the easiest touchdown of his life:
That’s Kittle underneath, cutting across the middle. His cut was so sharp that William Jackson III fell down, which forced the single-high safety to shift his coverage to Kittle. That left Goodwin running wide open with nobody within five yards of him.
But that’s not where Kittle does his most damage. He’s downright disrespectful to the players who try to tackle him. Five-yard gains become 10-yard gains. Let’s look at some examples.
On this play, Kittle had a couple yards of separation from the defender, but what initially looked like a 10-to-12-yard pickup turned into a 36-yard gain as Kittle broke one tackle, stiff-armed another, and fell forward another couple yards when the Bengals finally brought him down.
Such plays are a running theme for Kittle, who seemingly treats every tackle attempt like a life-or-death situation. Check another example below:
First we have a great throw from Garoppolo under pressure, but after catching the pass at the 36-yard line, Kittle picked up another 30 yards after the catch, pinballing from one Rams defender to the next. He broke the tackle of the first one, stiff-armed the second one, spun away from the third one, and was finally brought down by a group of them.
Kittle had a couple of those plays early in the season against the Bengals and Rams, but his most impressive one was more recent — against the Saints in Week 14.
This was a fourth-and-2, with 39 seconds left and the game on the line. Garoppolo went to Kittle because he’s dependable underneath, and the short gain quickly turned into much more. The first tackler failed, and Kittle took the ball 39 yards. Two of the three Saints defenders who finally tackled him got a piece of his facemask, with one of the players literally swinging from it.
A couple plays later, the 49ers kicked a field goal and beat the Saints on the back of that gain. It put San Francisco in position for the top seed in the NFC, and is certainly something the Saints will be thinking about if they run into the 49ers in the playoffs.
Kittle is also a devastating blocker
Kittle is also the best run blocker the 49ers have, which is saying something with guys like Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk on the roster. Kittle is particularly good moving sideline-to-sideline when he’s blocking and more often than not, he’s the one in motion pre-snap in Shanahan’s offense.
His blocks are punishing above all else. Below, you can see a few examples of him destroying linebackers, something that appears to be a favorite pastime of his.
That’s Kittle on the outside, blocking Ravens linebacker Jaylon Ferguson to create the hole for the running back to go through. Kittle kept his feet moving forward, while changing the levels of his arms throughout the block. He avoided holding, and used his entire body to push Ferguson far out of the play.
There was another great example of Kittle’s blocking from that Ravens game:
That’s Kittle on the right side, pushing Matthew Judon out to the right to create the lane for running back Raheem Mostert. It looks like Judon gave him more trouble than usual, but Kittle was actually feeding Judon all the rope he needed to twist and throw him off balance — which he did, as you can see Judon going to the ground shortly after Mostert passed him.
One other huge block really stood from this year, and it came against the always-solid Luke Kuechly of the Panthers:
Kuechly (No. 59) is in the middle of the play. He’s the player assigned to Tevin Coleman here, but as he’s trying to get outside to make a stop before Coleman can get around the edge, Kittle is in his face. While Kuechly tried hard to get around Kittle,the tight end kept his feet moving and eventually threw Kuechly to the ground right in front of Coleman, who cut away and picked up a chunk of yardage on the play.
Most recently, Kittle was seen dealing a pancake block to Ricardo Allen against the Falcons. But more than that, he appeared to be laughing hard as he did it. No, seriously:
George Kittle was laughing as he pancaked a Falcons defender pic.twitter.com/spiHRh72kn— Kevin Jones (@Mr_KevinJones) December 15, 2019
That block led to a 49ers touchdown, and is perfectly emblematic of Kittle’s approach to football.
What Kittle did down the stretch
In a close game against the rival Rams in Week 16, Kittle caught a crucial touchdown and was the team’s leaving receiver, with five receptions for 79 yards plus the score. The 49ers beat the Rams, 34-31, keeping their hopes for the top seed alive.
He was also instrumental in the team’s top seed-clinching Week 17 win over the Seahawks, catching seven passes for 86 yards in the 26-21 win. That gave the 49ers a first-round bye in the postseason.
In the playoffs, Kittle’s presence isn’t felt in the box score — only four receptions for 35 yards between the 49ers’ two wins, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Kittle has been laying devastating blocks all over the place, and especially so in the 49ers’ 37-20 win over the Packers in the NFC Championship.
In that game, Raheem Mostert rushed for over 200 yards and four touchdowns, and he was often running right behind Kittle (and fullback Kyle Juszczyk). He was also a big factor blocking in the Divisional Round against the Vikings:
George Kittle's run blocking technique is better than some offensive lineman. Look at this block.— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 12, 2020
-Runs off the ball
-Second step contact
-hands inside, elbows in
-hat tight outside
-finish @49ers pic.twitter.com/C6yWeGe09g
Kittle was a fifth-round pick in 2017, meaning he is only signed through the 2020 season. He won’t ever sniff free agency, however. He’s going to be a fixture of the 49ers’ offense so long as they can keep him around.
More immediately is what Kittle means to San Francisco’s presence in the playoffs. He kept on being great down the stretch and into the actual playoff games. He’s a big reason the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl.
He is a complete tight end who can be counted on in the clutch to make a big, rumbling passing play or a punishing run block to spring a teammate. He’s the total package, and when you hear his name in the Super Bowl, you’ll know why.