Defending George Kittle Will Be Major Challenge For Vikings

Will Ragatz

The 49ers are one of the rare NFL teams whose most dangerous offensive weapon is not a running back nor a wide receiver, but a tight end. In just his third season, George Kittle is on pace to become one of the best tight ends of all time and poses a massive challenge for the Vikings defense this weekend.

Kittle's game-breaking talent is on par to that of Rob Gronkowski, who spent most of this decade as the gold standard at the position when healthy, and other recent stars at tight end like Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, and Tony Gonzalez.

Among current teams, only the Chiefs with Travis Kelce come to mind as another offense based around a tight end. Kittle and Kelce were the only two tight ends to lead their teams in yards from scrimmage in 2019. And for as dominant as Kelce has been for a sustained period of time, many – including Gronk – think Kittle is the superior player and the gold standard at the position.

That's because Kittle can do everything a tight end is asked to do at an elite level. He set the single-season record for receiving yards as a tight end with 1,377 in 2018, and crossed the 1,000-yard mark again this season despite missing two games and seeing increased defensive attention. And he's one of the league's best run-blockers at his position as well, which he credits to his college years at Iowa.

That makes him an incredibly valuable chess piece for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who is one of the NFL's brightest offensive minds.

"What's crazy with George, and the difference that makes him so much fun, is I've never had someone who you can't decide where you like him more – the pass game or the run game," Shanahan said on a conference call with Twin Cities media. "Because he does both at such a high level."

One thing that sets Kittle apart from players like Kelce, Gronkowski, and other tight ends is his speed. He ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL combine, and led all pass-catchers with an average of 10.2 yards after the catch in 2018. His six catches of 40-plus yards were four more than any other player at the position last season, and included gains of 85, 82, and 71 yards.

Kittle is agile, too, leading all tight ends in missed tackles forced this season, according to PFF.

"He's deceptively fast," Kyle Rudolph said of his tight end counterpart. "People don't realize how fast he is, he was a low 4.5 guy. You can see that in his route-running. He's moving."

The 49ers take full advantage of Kittle's talents, using him in a variety of ways. He can stay in to block on a running play. He can appear to be blocking, then leak out for a short play-action pass that turns into a big gain. He can run routes vertically. And they'll line him up all over the field, whether it's on the end of the line, split out wide, or even in the backfield.

Kittle is a threat at every level and in every aspect of the game.

"The different places that they put him within formations and how they use his skillset [stands out to me]," said Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards. "He’s a good blocker when they ask him to block. He’s good out of the backfield. He’s good out at receiver. He does a lot of things for them offensively."

The chess match between Shanahan and Zimmer when the 49ers have the ball should be a fascinating one, and Kittle will be a big part of that. How will Zimmer game-plan against Kittle to limit him? In his only previous game against the Vikings – the regular season opener in 2018 – Kittle caught five passes for 90 yards, but could've had a much bigger day.

Eric Kendricks had a great season in pass coverage, but he's giving up four inches of height to Kittle. Jayron Kearse would match up well size-wise, but he's doubtful to play. In all likelihood, it'll be some combination of Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and safeties Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, and Andrew Sendejo covering Kittle.

Last week, the Vikings held Michael Thomas in check and advanced to the next round. If they can do the same with Kittle, they might just be on the NFC title game.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Defending Kittle is virtually impossible, but containing him is different. Keeping him in check and eliminating his big plays will be important to force this upset. How to do that exactly, I'm not so sure