Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk, TE George Kittle ride hot offense to career statistical highs

Jan 8, 2023 at 6:45 PM--

The San Francisco 49ers have been rolling on offense as of late, and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle have been two of the biggest beneficiaries.

The 49ers have scored 33 or more points in six of their last eight games after doing so just twice over the first nine games of the season. Five of those games have come since rookie Brock Purdy became the team's quarterback after Jimmy Garoppolo sustained an ankle injury against the Miami Dolphins on December 4. Aiyuk and Kittle have seemingly found chemistry with Purdy, as Aiyuk finished the season with 18 catches for 241 yards and one touchdown over the final three games while Kittle finished with 18 catches for 265 yards and seven touchdowns over the final four games. Aiyuk's strong finish pushed him over 1,000 yards for the first time in his NFL career (78 catches, 1,015 yards, eight touchdowns), while Kittle notched a career high in touchdowns (11) to go with 60 catches for 765 yards.

"Huge deal," Aiyuk said after breaking the 1,000-yard mark in the season finale against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. "Huge deal. That was super exciting. That's the mark for receivers. That's what you think about when you're training in the offseason, when you're sitting at home throwing the ball up in the air as a kid on the bed."

So what's been the difference for Aiyuk, Kittle and the rest of the 49ers' offense? Each player gave a number of reasons for the recent success while speaking with reporters on Sunday, but much of it can be traced back to the offense getting better over the course of the season as they grew into their roles and learned to function as a unit.

"Early in the season, we were just looking for our flow -- how we were going to get it done," Aiyuk said. "I think midway through the season, Week 7 or 8 after the bye week, we kind of settled in. Everybody understood their role, what we wanted to do as an offense. Now the work we put in through spring and in the summer got to show up."

The addition of running back Christian McCaffrey via midseason trade has also been a major factor, as has the growth of the offensive line. Purdy's unexpected success since taking over the quarterback role has been the icing on the cake.

"It's fun," Kittle said of the team's offensive surge. "More touchdowns for everybody. It's been really fun. It has to do with our run game's been great. It opens up our pass game, but Brock's been fantastic in the pass game, really. Aiyuk just got over 1,000 yards, which is awesome for him. It's incredible. But Brock's just been very consistent for us. There hasn't been a really weak link, especially when our O-Line's been able to play together almost the entire year. I think that's one of the biggest things people don't talk about is our O-Line has gotten so much better together. And then you throw in all of our skill positions, that just makes it more dangerous."

Kittle in particular has benefited from Purdy being in the lineup, going from having a strange lack of targets at times earlier in the season to finishing the year with a flurry of touchdowns. The two players came from rival collegiate backgrounds with Kittle playing for the University of Iowa and Purdy playing at Iowa State, but they've become a potent tandem as part of the same offense in the NFL.

"I could be punny and talk about Iowa, but I think all the plays that we've called that have been designed to go to me, Brock's done a great job of keeping me in his first read and I take advantage of that opportunity to get open for him to throw it," Kittle said. "But when the play breaks down he such a good job of keeping his eyes up and he always looks through the back of the end zone. I think Brock's just a good football player that tries to give his guys a good shot at scoring touchdowns and getting the ball. We've just been very fortunate to connect on seven of them."

With the 49ers set to open postseason play at Levi's Stadium next weekend, the team has hit their stride offensively at the right time. And things can still get better, given the fact the offense has been without wide receiver Deebo Samuel in recent games due to knee and ankle injuries and running back Elijah Mitchell for most of the season due to knee problems. Both players returned to the lineup on Sunday, giving the 49ers their full array of skill position players as the playoffs approach.

"I think the more we play together, the more guys stay healthy, the better they get," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Sunday. "I think our running game's gotten better, the way we've been blocking and stuff. I think having Deebo out, having Elijah out, it's put more pressure on other guys, which usually that helps guys, and I think it has. I think Christian's gotten a lot more used to our style and stuff and he's getting better as it goes. Sometimes it takes time to click and I think we're getting better with time."

There's no reason to think the 49ers will slow down on offense anytime soon, regardless of who they play in the postseason (their first round opponent was still unknown as of the publishing of this article). But expect Aiyuk and Kittle to continue to play a significant role against whichever teams the 49ers get the chance to face. There's still room for each player and the offense as a whole to find improvements in the days ahead, but there's also no doubt that everything is in a good place as the playoffs draw near.

"There's definitely stuff for us to get better at," Kittle said. "We're going to watch the film hard. But we're just really looking forward to whoever we're playing next. I know that our team will come back and get better from that too."


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