Why the 49ers Don't Need George Kittle to Fill the Stat Sheet
Jose Luis Sanchez III
Dominating the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional playoff game was an impressive feat by the San Francisco 49ers. It is even more impressive when you realize that tight end George Kittle, their best player on offense, hardly put up any numbers on the stat sheet.
Entering Saturday's divisional playoff game, the 49ers were aware that the Vikings' defense was the best at defending tight ends. That much was evident, as Kittle only recorded three catches for 16 yards. Quite the pedestrian day in terms of receiving for him. However, not having a huge receiving day isn't the end of the world for Kittle and the 49ers because he impacts the run game as much as any of the offensive lineman.
That is exactly why he is an elite player and arguably the best tight end in the league. The 49ers don't need Kittle to fill the stat sheet.
He's more than just a receiver, he's a complete football player. If receiving isn't his day, then the 49ers know he will come through as a blocker and a leader. There was one point in Saturday's game where Kittle was moving Everson Griffen at will. How many tight ends can hold their own against a defensive end? Let alone moving one at will with a resume like Griffen.
"Kittle, everyone knows what he’s done in the pass game," said head coach Kyle Shanahan, "but he has never once in three years came up to me during a game and said hey I need this route or hey we’ve got to do this."
"He’s never once came up to me about a pass play, but he comes up to me about every seven plays about what time of run play we need to do, who we need to allow him to hit, things like that. It makes it very fun to call plays for him.”
The selflessness of Kittle speaks volumes about his character and the culture of the 49ers. Many stars in the NFL would be banging their chest along with boisterous yelling if they were not a focal point in a game. The Vikings are a perfect example of it with both of their star wide receivers, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, publicly speaking out on the lack of targets.
That is something we will never hear out of George Kittle. It's just the guy he is. He wants to win and will contribute any way he can. Once again, that also speaks volumes to the culture of the 49ers.
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was benched towards the end of the first quarter on Saturday. A bunch of players would have sulked or stayed on the sideline. However, he stepped up to the plate to take the special teams snaps of Emmanuel Moseley who had just replaced him.
Everything that the top players and coaches preach gets trickled down to each and every player. It resonates with them, which is why Kittle filling the stat sheet is not necessary. His impact as a blocker and strong aura as a leader helps the team regardless. Even if Kittle doesn't put up numbers as a receiver, he is still influencing the defense as a threat.
Against the Vikings, they made it a point of emphasis to not allow Kittle to gash them. Every motion he was sent in the formation pre-snap would force a Vikings defensive player to follow him. All eyes were on him once the ball was snapped, which allows the core three of the 49ers' receivers to feast.
Kittle can be used as a decoy and the 49ers will happily feed Deebo Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne. There is never a pressing need to force it to Kittle. The fact that he encourages Shanahan to run is another reason why there is never a need to do so.
If defenses want to scheme heavily against Kittle, then the 49ers will have no issues with it. They are a balanced enough offense to the point that almost any other skill player could explode in a game. The Green Bay Packers have their work cut out for them as they found out in week 12 when they were embarrassed by Kittle and the 49ers in front of the nation. Surely they remember the damage Kittle did to their defense, which will likely lead them to replicate Minnesota's plan of scheming him out.
And that will be welcomed with open arms by Shanahan who will set up the other skill players beautifully to point up points.