How did he do it? By being an elite athlete playing tight end.

Seriously though, George Kittle had a breakout year in his second year in the NFL. In 2018, he finished as the team's leading receiver and surpassed the 1,000 yard mark for receiving yards this season by Week 14 with a 210 yard receiving performance against the Broncos. He finished with 88 receptions for 1,377 yards, and five touchdowns, 890 yards more than the 49ers' second leading receiver.

Kittle is the first 49ers pass catcher to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season since Anquan Boldin did it in 2014. In fact, he joins Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Terrell Owens, and Jerry Rice as the only 49ers receivers to go over 1,000 yards in a season in the last 20 seasons and joins 11 other NFL tight ends in eclipsing 1,000 yards in the last 20 years. That's pretty good company to be in.

Kittle got there despite playing with his third quarterback since the second half of the season. He was featured prominently in the passing game since Marquise Goodwin, Pierre Garçon, and Dante Pettis have all missed games this year. He's been a reliable target despite teams trying to limit his role.

I've previously looked at his role in the running game and play action passing game, so let's look at why he's been so effective in the rest of the passing game in eclipsing that 1,000 yard mark this season.

Route running ability


One reason among many that Kittle has been so effective this year in the passing game is due to his ability to run sharp, concise, and crisp routes against man coverage, and an awareness to find the open hole in the zone quickly and in such a manner that allows him to transition quickly up field into a runner and gain yards after the catch (YAC).



Here against Minnesota against a one-high safety look, Kittle is running a deep dig route over the middle. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo motions a receiver out of the backfield to the left, creating a trips formation to the left and Kittle as the lone receiver on the right side running the dig against Vikings defensive back Holton Hill (No. 24). The deep safety on the opposite hash is preoccupied with the seam route as Garoppolo looks him off.

As Kittle gets to the top of his route, he stays square as he chops down in front of Hill. Doing so prevents the defensive back from reading and jumping the route before the receiver can come out of his break. Kittle breaks across his face and squares his route off against man coverage and gets his head around as Garoppolo places a perfect pass into his numbers.

Another way Kittle became so effective as a receiver is the ways in which he creates separation. Elite route running receivers have a variety of techniques at their disposal and can be more subtle and nuanced in their precision. Tight ends not so much. Except Kittle, who utilized other nuanced ways to get open.



To create separation here, Kittle, matched up against Rams linebacker Corey Littleton (No. 58), shows the one way he's able to get open and why it's so effective. Littleton is playing a match zone on the quarters coverage side of the defense, meaning he'll match any route by the #2 or #3 receiver who runs an in-breaking route. He has to keep his eyes on the receiver to play this zone.

Kittle releases up field and sells the run block on Littleton who initially clues in on Kittle at the snap. As Kittle approached Littleton the way a run blocker would in the open field, Littleton braced to engage Kittle on a potential block and shifted his positioning to play the run instead of the pass.

The bluff block worked to Kittle's advantage as he swiped away Littleton's hands and got over the top on an in-breaking over the middle where quarterback C.J. Beathard finds him for a nice gain. Selling the bluff block is not the only way he's able to create separation and get open though. He can also do it through more conventional ways like utilizing double moves against faster defenders.

Kittle also made some pretty spectacular catches as well.



Kittle finds himself running against man coverage against the Raiders cover-1 defense on a "stick-nod" route on a variation of Shanahan's "Zona Squirrel" concept. With linebacker Tahir Whitehead (No. 59) in man coverage, Kittle releases up field and cuts to the outside. Instead of just utilizing a jab stab to shake the defender, Kittle fully turns his hips into the cut and gets Whitehead to commit by flipping his hips with him.

Once Whitehead commits, Kittle flips back inside of him on a skinny post up the field in front of the safety. Mullens had initially accidentally flipped the route responsibilities for running back Matt Breida and receiver Marquise Goodwin so that Goodwin's inside slant holds the defenders in the middle of the field where Kittle is running to. Mullens still finds a way to fit the pass in between defenders to Kittle, who makes a ridiculous one-handed catch in traffic.

This catch transitions us to the next area of Kittle's performance as a receiver: his ability to create yards after the catch. Not one defender on this play was able to tackle Kittle or catch him until the very end of his run because of his ability to transition to a runner quickly and effectively after the catch.

Yards after the catch


As noted above, Kittle's ability to transition to a route runner and gain yards after the catch (YAC) is superior to just about every tight end in the league minus Travis Kelce or Rob Gronkowski.



Against the Rams in week seven, Kittle's longest catch of the day was a 35-yard reception where he found the open zone in the Rams primarily cover-4 defense. The above screen grab comes courtesy of Wade Phillips' defensive playbook from 2003 with the Falcons but the responsibilities rarely ever change.

To the weak side, the defense plays cover-2 man, to the strong side, the defense plays a quarters/match coverage with the SAM and MIKE linebackers pattern matching on the number two and number three receivers into the areas.



Kittle is working against the quarters coverage on the left side of the offensive formation. Kittle runs vertical past Littleton and cuts across the middle of the field to the open zone. According to Phillips' cover-4 rules for the MIKE linebacker, Littleton should've run with Kittle in that zone instead of letting Kittle get open over the middle. Beathard finds Kittle over the middle for an easy throw and Kittle transitions right away to get up field, running through the tackles of Littleton and safety Lamarcus Joyner before being brought down.

As noted above, Kittle's ability to transition to a route runner and gain yards after the catch (YAC) is superior to just about every tight end in the league including Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski because of the speed he possesses to outrun basically everyone on the field.



Against a cover three shell (or what looks like cover one in the hybrid Seattle defense used by Gus Bradley), the 49ers are runing a verticals concept designed to put the safety into conflict. In this case, Kittle is running the deep "stick-nod" route that's designed to look like he's running an out route and quickly cuts back up the seam into the void left by the safety.

As Kittle is running the stick-nod route, Beathard is looking off safety Jahleel Addae. As Addae gets his hips turned toward the go-route on the boundary side of the field, Beathard turns and throws to Kittle running up the seam. Kittle catches it in the triangle of defenders and it's off to the races for the speedy tight end as he out-runs the safety and cornerback chasing him for an 82-yard touchdown score, the longest by a tight end in 49ers history.

The day after the Kittle's long catch and run, head coach Kyle Shanahan detailed the play:

"It was a zone play. So, all he tried to do was not show that he was running a seam so he ran a nod instead. When you run a seam, the safety carries you. When you run a 10-yard out, he doesn't. So, you try to make it look like that. That's why he was wide open. It was zone coverage. Then, it's up to C.J. to look the middle-third player off to get him to defend a go-route, which was on the left side. The O-Line gave him enough time to move his eyes to the right, to the left and to come back to the right. So, he moved the coverage well, which got Kittle open. He was wide open just by the coverage and the quarterback, then Kittle did a hell of a job making it into a touchdown."

Kittle didn't have many long catch and runs where he had uncontested running lanes, but even when he had contested running lanes after the catch, he still ran through tackles and made defenders miss on his way to long gains.



Against the Broncos, Kittle is running a "stick china" route against an aggressive defense looking to gain leverage on any out-breaking routes to the sideline since the 49ers had already beaten them up on those routes. Stick china is a route where the receiver gets vertical for five yards, breaks out for a couple of steps, and then pivots back to the middle of the field.

With the Broncos in man-to-man coverage, safety Darian Stewart (No. 26) overplays the out-breaking portion of the route before Kittle breaks back inside. Kittle creates huge separation with a crisp cut back in, catches the pass, and breaks three tackles as he sprints down field.

Later in the game, Kittle's 85-yard touchdown catch is the perfect combination of Kyle Shanahan's brilliant scheming and what Kittle can do in the open field with the ball and why he's so dangerous.



The 49ers are running a variant of what Shanahan calls "rider" or what the rest of us know generally as the "Yankee" concept. On this passing concept, there is a deeper go-route (on other variations this a deep post ("Heat") or a deep angle or corner route ("Burner"), and a deep "sit" route (or a "Miami" route that looks like a deep cross until the receiver sits in the middle of the field).



The Broncos confirm they are most likely in a cover-1 man coverage shell with the motion from receiver Marquise Goodwin, who was lined up outside tight ends Garrett Celek and Kittle in a bunch formation to the left. Before the snap, Mullens sends Goodwin in a jet motion across the formation as the corner follows. At this point, the jet motion also pulls the free safety down into the box but no one replaces him in the middle of the field either by design or by miscommunication.

With the defense confirmed to be in man coverage, Kittle steps down the line like he's going to block as Mullens executes a hard play fake. Kittle's man, linebacker Todd Davis (No. 51), bites on the hard play fake as Kittle releases up and across the field on the crossing route. The coverage looks confused as Kittle crosses the field and everyone runs with the motion and deeper post by Pettis, but no one covers Kittle, who catches the pass and streaks down the sideline for an 85 yard score.

Against the Bears, Kittle gave his team a chance to keep moving the ball late in the fourth quarter while it tried, unsuccessfully, to pull ahead of Chicago in a close game. Late in the game on the first drive of the fourth quarter, the Bears tried to confuse the quarterback with a simple fire zone blitz.



The Bears are playing a variation of quarters/palms coverage (or cover-2 read) behind a fire zone blitz. Cornerback Kyle Fuller (No. 23) is outside over Goodwin and has responsibility for anything that comes into the flat. Linebacker Danny Trevathan (No. 59) is lined up over Kittle and will look to "wall" or prevent anything from going across the middle. Deon Bush (No. 26) is the safety to that side and running with any vertical route from the number two or number one receiver.

As Mullens scrambles, Kittle hits the sideline on the intermediate out route after Trevathan re-routed him to Fuller, preventing Mullens from getting a throw off. Fuller hangs out in the flat as Kittle approaches but Kittle, seeing Mullens scramble, sprints across the field to give Mullens a chance.

There is no one in the middle of the field since the corner and safety on that side ran with the intermediate crossing route by Bourne. Mullens heaves a pass to Kittle, who has about three yards of separation on Fuller. Kittle catches the pass and ends up getting about eight more yards after the catch.

Kittle's versatility after the catch doesn't just extend to the downfield throws either, as he is capable of taking screens a long way too.



Late in the first Cardinals game of the season, after the offense struggled a bit moving the ball and accumulating points, Shanahan, who had schemed up some easy screen reads for Beathard, went back to some easier reads and plays for his quarterback to execute and move the ball down the field.

Beathard sends Kittle in motion revealing that the Cardinals were in a man coverage cover-1 shell. The Cardinals initially lined up in a cover-1 defense but as Kittle moved across the formation in motion before the snap, Cardinals safety Antoine Beathea (No. 41) checks the coverage into a cover-2 man shell to protect against the deep pass with Kittle now lined up in the backfield.

At the snap, Kittle leaks out of the backfield with both safeties dropping to cover their deep halves. The defender over the slot has receiver Trent Taylor man-to-man and initially carries Taylor down the seam before realizing it's a screen. By the time he reacts to the screen, three lineman release downfield to form a convoy for Kittle and cut off the slot defender. Kittle catches the pass and speeds to a 45 yard gain before being tackled out of bounds by Bethea.

Kittle's' record setting day and the plays that got him there


Kittle came into Week 17's game with the Rams sitting at 1,228 yards, good for eighth all-time on the receiving yards list for a tight end. He would finish the day with nine receptions for 149 yards and one touchdown. That 149 yards bumped to the top of the all-time receiving yards list in a single season, ahead of current Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who set his mark earlier in the day.

The bulk of Kittle's yards came on receptions of 25 yards, 25 yards, and 43 yards. The first 25 yard reception came on a little misdirection installed by Shanahan, and it's what Fox Sports TV announcer Chris Spielman called the "dead man tight end" play.



The play starts out as a fake running back swing pass to the left. Mullens fakes the throw to running back Alfred Morris (No. 46) out to the left and the defense reacts by flowing toward the swing. As Mullens turns and scrambles to the right, the rest of the Rams defense follows so that by the time Mullens hits Kittle in the middle of the field, there is no one around. Another aspect that helps sell the play is the pulling right guard Mike Person on the right side with the fake screen action to fullback Kyle Jusczcyk (No. 44).

While Mullens is executing the fake to the left and the subsequent roll out to the right, Kittle lunges like he's going to block the defensive end, falls to the ground, waits about a second and a half, then gets up and sprints to the middle of the field on a sneak route where he catches the pass and sprints for 25 yards down to the five yard line. With defenses scheming to take away Kittle as an option late in the season, Shanahan found one more way to get him open with that misdirection above.

The next 25 yard completion happened on a simple "Y-sail" concept that Shanahan calls the "Y-chase". "Sail" or "chase" is a three level flood concept designed to stretch a defense vertically and is ideal against a cover-3 defense where the flat defender to the boundary is forced to either sink under the sail route or play the fullback out to the flat.



The corner bails out down the sideline with Kendrick Bourne on the corner route. Underneath that, Kittle is running the sail or "chase" route in which he just curves his route off against zone coverage at about 13-17 yards where Mullens finds him wide open. Kittle gains 25 on the play, moving him into 3rd place all-time on the tight end single season receiving yard list, ahead of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The play that put Kittle over the top came with just over two minutes remaining on what Shanahan calls "stick dragon."



One of the best ways to utilize Kittle's athletic ability is to get him the ball quickly and that's exactly what the stick combo does. At about five yards, the receiver running the stick will plant and cut out or sit in the zone and look for the ball. Kittle is running the flat route out of the stack set. Mullens read to that side becomes the flat defender. If he carries the flat, the stick will be open, if he drops under the stick, the flat will be open.

Kittle is running the flat route against the Rams cover-4 hybrid. On this particular defensive call, the stick combo side is being run against a cover-2 man, with quarters coverage on the right side of the offensive formation. The corner is responsible for the flat but against the stack alignment, the defenders will watch for verticals or switch verticals before any shorter route.

Mullens is just a fraction late on the throw as the corner gets a good jump on the pass. But instead of going for the tackle, he tries to bat the ball down. Kittle is an elite athlete at the catch point though, catches the pass, quickly transitions to a runner up field, sprints away from the defense, breaks one more tackle, and a touchdown pass have never looked easier.

Conclusion


George Kittle had a breakout year in an offense that was limited by the rotating quarterback carousel, which makes his record-breaking season all the more remarkable. It is a true testament to the kind of athlete he is and the genius of Kyle Shanahan to find new and interesting ways to get him open. Shanahan relied a lot on Kittle down the stretch to spark the offense and it paid huge with three wins and several close games late in the season. With a full arsenal coming back healthy to start 2019, there is no telling the heights this offense can reach.

UPDATE #1:

On a side note, I found two plays similar to the one above where Kittle falls down as a decoy before getting up and running to catch a pass over the middle. Both plays come from 1998 NFC Wild Card Game where the 49ers faced the Packers in the game known as "The Catch 2."



In the above play, quarterback Steve Young found tight end Greg Clark (also No. 85) in the back of the end zone for a touchdown after Clark had fake-dived on play action pass that the Packers defense aggressively over-played. In the formation, Clark is on the left side of the offensive line as the inline tight end.



Later in that same game against the Packers, Steve Young found Greg Clark again on a play action fake sweep. Clark started on the left again, dived as a decoy again, got back up and sprinted across wide open on a drag route where Young found him for a quick score (shout out to Christian R on Twitter for finding the second example from that game).

All gifs and images courtesy of the NFL.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise stated.