Originally I started this series with the idea that I'd cover tight end George Kittle in two separate pieces, the running game and the passing game. But it's evolved into a three-part series examining his breakout season thus far and why he's one the league's premier run-blocking and pass-catching tight ends. Today we look at his role in the play action passing game. The final installment will look at his ability to create yards after the catch and his route running ability.

According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers are running play action on 27.8% of passing plays this season through 10 games. Combined with the running game, it's an efficient offensive attack that has kept the 49ers in numerous close games this season, even with marginal offensive talent. However, Kittle is far from a marginal offensive talent. He has developed into an elite offensive weapon and is currently the team's leading receiver with 50 receptions for 775 yards and three touchdowns.

The play action passing game is where Kittle can do the most damage. His speed and physicality serve the offense well and enable it to get chunk plays when needed.
The 49ers employ Kittle in a number of ways using play action.

Against Minnesota, the 49ers line up in 11 personnel out of a shotgun two-by-two formation. The play is a variation of an old West Coast Offense play action pass that has two crossing routes run underneath two deep "alert" routes.



Goodwin is split left running the "Z cross" while Kittle comes from behind the line on a tight end "slide" route out to the flat. The two receivers to the right are running deep "alert" routes that give the quarterback the option of taking a deep shot if the coverage warrants such a decision.



With Garoppolo in the gun, he fakes to running back Alfred Morris on the wide zone action going to the left. Kittle leaks out to the flat on the "slide" route to the opposite side of the run action. As Garoppolo looks to throw, he has a defender in his face and looks quickly to Kittle out in the flat. Kittle catches the pass and immediately shows off an ability to transition to a runner to pick up 17 yards after the catch.

While head coach Kyle Shanahan will mix and match personnel groupings, and his favorite this year is 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers), he'll typically keep defenses guessing by showcasing different groupings.



On this play action pass, a variant of which the 49ers ran several times against Rams, Kittle lines up as an in-line tight end in 21 personnel and uses his athleticism and speed to get open and make plays. Kittle is running a shallow cross with a deeper crossing route above him. However, Kittle becomes the primary target as Beathard is chased out of the pocket immediately. The Rams defense over-pursues the play action run fake though, and linebacker Samson Ebukam (No. 50) vacates his flat zone.

Kittle races past Ebukam into the open part of the field in the flat near the sideline as Ebukam recovers. Beathard is a little late with the throw but completes it just in time for Kittle to catch and get up field. Kittle's athletic ability allows him to cut up the sideline just before his momentum would take him out of bounds and he dives to extend for more yards.



Similar to the play above, the 49ers bring Kittle from the back side again but this time out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers). Tight end Garrett Celek (No. 88) motions to the opposite side of the formation on a "Y-trade" motion and as he does, the coverage rotates from two high to one high as they align to match the strength of the 49ers formation.

Beathard executes a hard outside zone play fake to the right of the offense as Kittle leaks out underneath the opposite way past Ebukam, who had responsibility again for the back side. The Rams defense completely bites again on the play action and Kittle sprints to the opening in the middle of the field. Beathard hit him in stride and no one is even around to make a right away tackle on Kittle until cornerback Troy Hill (No. 32) attempts to bring him down. Kittle instead drags Hill for another 15 yards before finally going out of bounds.



In a similar play against the Raiders, quarterback Nick Mullens executes the outside zone fake to the right of the offense as Kittle breaks free the opposite way. As Kittle runs through the defense, linebacker Emmanuel Lamur (No. 54) recognizes the play develop but as he stops to change direction and cover Kittle, he slips on the turf and Kittle is wide open again. Mullens drops in an easy pass and Kittle converts to a runner quickly and gets upfield to gain 17 yards.

Kittle's athletic ability and speed to get upfield allow Shanahan to use him in a variety of ways on play action boot passes that teams don't typically do with their tight ends. His speed alone allows him to fly past underneath zones from the backside, enabling Shanahan to go away from the defense's strength.

Kittle's versatility also allows the team to use him in more than just a traditional downfield pass catching role too.



One way Shanahan employs Kittle other than in a traditional role is running him out on screens or shovel passes using misdirection. This particular play, the "toss read shovel", gained 10 yards against the Cardinals and is a great play inside the red zone. The 49ers scored a touchdown on this play last season as well.

The toss read shovel utilizes a power blocking scheme with the backside guard pulling around to the play side and the rest of the offensive blocking down and walling off the rest of the defensive front. But unlike the power blocking scheme, by attacking the outside of the defense, the quarterback forces a defensive end or linebacker to gain width and depth enabling the pulling guard to kick out one or the other. This creates a running lane outside the tackle rather than between the line.

Beathard takes the snap working out of a shotgun formation. The line power blocks and pulls Laken Tomlinson around into the hole to lead block. Defensive end Markus Golden is the defender they are optioning off. If he pursues upfield, Beathard will pitch the ball to Morris, if Golden plays the running back, Beathard will pitch to Kittle on the shovel read. Golden in this case plays the toss read so Beathard pitches to Kittle.

Kittle barrels forward, showing how hard he is to tackle and drags defenders for 10 yards. It's a nifty little wrinkle that Shanahan will employ when looking to take advantage of a defense's aggressiveness. The Cardinals are no stranger to sniffing out the zone read option-type plays and Shanahan used Kittle to take advantage of this aggressiveness.

Kittle's use in the play action passing game is just one facet of his skill set when employed as an inline tight end. In the next series, we'll take a look at his ability to run routes, get open, and create yards after the catch from non-play action passing sets.

All gifs and images courtesy of the NFL.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise stated.