The return of star tight end George Kittle will be crucial for the San Francisco 49ers as they look to claim a vital win over the Green Bay Packers in the race for a first-round bye in the NFC playoff race.
However, as Kittle -- who returned to practice this week -- prepares to likely play his first game since Week 9, Kyle Shanahan and the Niners can operate in the knowledge they do not have to put too much on a player they cannot afford to lose in the long term.
In fact, Kittle's snaps must be limited against the Packers after it was revealed that his injury has been a broken ankle. Kittle is a vital cog in the 49er offense; he is Jimmy Garoppolo's most dependable target in the passing game and is blocking is a massive part of San Francisco's success on the ground. Without Kittle against the Niners rushed for 87 yards against the Seattle Seahawks and only 34 versus the Arizona Cardinals last week.
Before Kittle's injury, the fewest running yards San Francisco had in 2019 came when the 49ers finished with 98 in the Week 1 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Despite Kittle's obvious importance to the offense, it would be reckless to risk over-exerting him in his first game back from knee and ankle injuries. The Niners do not want Kittle to suffer another injury that would put his participation in a prospective playoff run in jeopardy, and San Francisco will still likely lean heavily on his backup Ross Dwelley and Kyle Juszczyk to share some of the burden.
Dwelley's versatility has been extremely valuable to the Niners in 2019. He filled in for Juszczyk when the fullback was out with a knee injury and proved his reliability as a pass-catcher in the Week 11 win over the Cardinals. Dwelley caught two touchdowns and had another called back on a questionable holding penalty. In the previous Week 9 defeat of the Cardinals, Dwelley converted the decisive third down that wrapped up victory for the 49ers.
"Fortunately, a guy like Ross doesn't really need a lot of help," Kittle said per NBC Sports Bay Area. "He's been preparing to play. He prepares every game like he’s going to start, and he's going to play every single rep, so he just hopped in, pretty similar to Nick [Mullens] last year.
"He just hops in, and he's ready to go, and there's not a lot of, 'Hey, get your toes wet.' He's just out there going full speed, and that's what you want out of the guy."
Juszczyk's reputation as a receiver is more established. He had seven catches for 63 yards against the Cardinals, providing a reliable safety net for Garoppolo in the screen game. However, if the Niners want to protect Kittle by keeping him out of the blocking game, then Juszczyk's ability to help Mike McGlinchey and Justin Skule against Z'Darius Smith and Preston Smith may be more valuable to them then what he can do as a pass-catcher.
Kittle's mere presence on Sunday will be a massive boost for San Francisco. He opens up the offense with his versatility in being able to line up from various spots and frequently causes havoc for opposing defenses with what he can do over the middle of the field.
Should he indeed be ready to play, then Kittle will be a focal point of the 49ers gameplan. Yet, in a game where they could decide to limit his reps, the dependability and flexibility of Dwelley and Juszczyk may be just as important