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Counterpoint: George Kittle is a Good Problem to Have

Bret Rumbeck
Jan 15, 2019 at 11:34 AM

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Last week during our virtual writer's meeting, fellow Webzone creator Chris Wilson mentioned the San Francisco 49ers' overreliance on second-year tight end George Kittle. That caught my attention and I thought Chris' position needed an opposite reaction.

He kindly agreed to let me counter his argument and to show the internet that two people who've only met in a Slack forum could hold a civil debate on sports.

First, Chris did a tremendous breakdown of the 49ers' reliance on Kittle, crunching numbers and using the Fibonacci sequence to compare Kittle's statistics to other receivers. Please take a moment to read his column.

Before the 2017 season, a Kyle Shanahan offense averaged 561.9 pass attempts per season, with roughly 112.6 targets to the tight end. The starting Y-receiver could expect 74.3 catches per season and play a role in roughly 20.05-percent of the passing game.

In his first year in San Francisco, Shanahan and the tight end corps fell short of these averages. The 49ers' offense only incorporated tight ends into 16.3-percent of the passing game, or 99 targets on 607 attempts. Kittle finished his rookie year with 43 catches; Garrett Celek had 21 catches, and Cole Hikutini ended with two.

I'm not an expert, but incorporating the tight end in a mere 16-percent of the offense is not enough in today's NFL. It was one area I thought Shanahan could immediately improve, noting it in an article for the Webzone last May.

It's clear Shanahan is a Webzone reader because he included the tight ends on 26.5-percent of the passing attack in 2018, a 10-point increase from 2017.

That's heavy use of the tight end position, but still short of how often Shanahan called on his tight ends during the 2010 season with Washington. Eight years ago, he targeted his tight ends 196 times, making up 32.2-percent of the passing game.

In 2018, Kittle finished the year with 88 catches on 131 targets. The other tight ends, Garrett Celek and Ross Dwelley, totaled seven catches on 10 targets.

Kittle's numbers and use are not unsustainable or an addiction, but the proper use of the team's greatest offensive weapon.

Shanahan and the Tight End

Today's tight end is not what grandpa watched in the 1970s or 80s. Over a generation, the hulking bruiser with soft hands morphed into a power forward on the basketball team who can play running back, run block, and put a nasty double move on a safety.

George Kittle does all these tasks and more in Shanahan's offense.

Think back to how often Shanahan shifted Kittle around the formation. Kittle would start in a wing position, only to be moved into the backfield to be a lead block on a run play. Don't forget that Kittle had one rush for ten yards in 2018. Or, Shanahan would flank Kittle out and then move him across the formation to open up other throwing or running lanes.

Indeed, each NFL coach has a dedicated set of plays for his tight end, and Shanahan is no different. But Kittle's athleticism is what sets him apart from his counterparts; Shanahan knows this and is able to use more of his playbook and offensive genius to exploit the offense's most gifted athlete.

Week 13 vs Seattle – Third quarter: 1st and 10 at the SF 25 (6:11)

Shanahan called the above play in the Week 13 match-up against Seattle. It's designed based in pure deception, with a goal to open up a vast chunk of artificial turf for the tight end. Both receivers run routes to clear the middle of the field, while the offensive line set up for a screen pass.

Kittle gained 28-yards on the play above, and it wasn't the first time Shanahan used Y-leak to gobble up yardage and keep an offensive series alive.

Y-Leak wasn't a new concept in Shanahan's system, but Kittle executes the play far better than Jacob Tamme or Jordan Cameron.

Chris noted that Kittle had his second 100-yard game in Week 9 against the Oakland Raiders, and that "… defensive coordinators began to game plan specifically to stop the 49ers' top receiving target."

If Week 9 was Kittle's watershed moment, then defensive coordinators in Weeks 10-17 did a horrible job of containing Kittle. During that period, Kittle racked up 685 yards receiving on 47 catches. He averaged 97.8 yards per game and 6.71 catches per game.

Of course, Kittle did draw double and triple team coverage, especially after his 210-yard performance in Week 14 against Denver. The over-coverage of Kittle allowed 49er receivers to beat single coverage for big plays.

Here's another example from the Week 13 game against Seattle.

Week 13 vs Seattle – Fourth quarter: 1st and 10 at the SF 25 (14:17)

Shanahan called a play-action, sending Kittle and wide receiver Dante Pettis on post routes, while slot receiver Trent Taylor shot into the right flat. The fake froze Seattle's linebackers, but both moved to the right to cover Taylor.

Kittle, outlined in the red box, drew triple coverage including the safety. The threat of Kittle on an intermediate route left a wide-open field for Pettis and allowed him to score a 75-yard touchdown.

If an overuse or addiction to Kittle opens up room for 75-yard touchdown passes, then please allow Shanahan and me to chase that dragon to the bitter end.

Maybe quarterback Nick Mullens used Kittle as a security blanket, or Shanahan really did over-focus the offense around his tight end. It's also possible Kittle found every coverage soft spot, allowing all three 49er quarterbacks to see him in times of need.

Each factor played a small role in Kittle's record-setting year. More important, Shanahan's found success and failure during his tenure in the NFL. He's evolved his offense, always finding the right player or players to fit a specific role.

George Kittle put the 49ers in positions to win games in 2018. His ability and athleticism were critical to the small successes, and will not be an albatross for Shanahan in 2019.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
All images courtesy of
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

1 Comment

  • Bill
    With all due respect, I read Chris' column. With all due respect, I disagree with his conclusion. The four teams that are still alive and in the running for the NFL's top prize, did not get there by trading draft picks away for players at this or that position. They instead drafted wisely and followed a plan. There is no better example of this "team building" approach than the Rams and the Patriots. Yes, while they have signed some free agents and traded minor draft picks, they have largely followed the proven philosophy of "draft wisely." They are in this position today because they have rejected the notion of trading away draft picks for a shiny bauble and have focused on drafting and growing their own. I simply cannot understand the fascination by some to waste draft capital on another team's problem. I don't want Antonio Brown on this team. I don't want Levon Bell either. Both have shown they are not team players. The 49ers need team players. Team players are found through the draft. I'm not saying they can't be found in free agency. Obviously, some can. But the true key to NFL success is draft, draft and draft.
    Jan 15, 2019 at 12:29 PM

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