George Kittle returned from injury for the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12. He produced a performance that was an encapsulation of why he is the X-factor that makes Kyle Shanahan’s offense operate to its efficient and consistently devastating best.
Kittle had missed the previous two games due to knee and ankle injuries sustained in the Week 9 win over the Arizona Cardinals. The Pro Bowl tight end made his comeback in last Sunday’s primetime showdown with the Green Bay Packers and, had Shanahan not divulged as such, nobody would have known he played with a broken bone in his ankle.
He played only 38 snaps, but Kittle’s impact on the 49ers’ 37-8 demolition of the Packers was massive, as evidenced by his Pro Football Network Offensive Share Metric (OSM) grade.
OSM uses NFL’s NextGen Stats and a series of algorithms to measure a player’s contribution to his team’s offensive performance by looking at the aspects of the game that only he could control.
A score of 40 or over indicates an elite level of performance. Kittle finished Week 12 as the top tight end by OSM, receiving a remarkable grade of 54.86. His mark was an adequate reward for a performance in which he caught all six of his targets for 129 yards and a touchdown.
Kittle’s reputation as the best all-around tight end in football is well-established in the post-Rob Gronkowski era. He receives widespread plaudits for his blocking as much as he does for his skills as a receiver.
It was the latter that was more prominent against Green Bay, however, as Kittle tormented the Packers’ defense by showcasing his ability to make plays over the middle and gain significant chunks of yardage after the catch.
According to NextGen Stats, Kittle averaged 11.3 yards after the catch per reception, 2.8 yards more than his expected YAC per target of 8.5.
Kittle outperformed that expected average by using his nuanced route-running to capitalize on the cushion the Packers foolishly afforded him. Similarly, he made the most of his surprising speed and outstanding power and contact balance to ensure multiple defenders were required to catch him and bring him to the ground.
The 2017 fifth-round picked up double-digit yardage on successive plays on a drive that ended in a field goal, which put the Niners up 13-0, and gained significant YAC on each completion from Jimmy Garoppolo. The first saw Kittle take full advantage of a free release off the line, gaining separation from Adrian Amos with a stutter move before dragging Amos and Darnell Savage with him on a dominant run after the catch.
On the next play, Green Bay’s defense again gave Kittle the benefit of a free release, and he was similarly ruthless in maximizing it, fooling Kevin King with a subtle head nod that sells a route to the left. This engineered acres of space for him to flow back to the right and gain 22 yards.
That link-up between Garoppolo and Kittle served as a precursor to the biggest play of the game. Kittle, per NextGen Stats, accounted for 56.38 percent of San Francisco’s total air yards in Week 12. Much of them came on a 61-yard touchdown pass from Garoppolo that effectively sealed the game for the Niners, who produced an instant response to the Packers’ first points of the game.
With the Niners lined up in 13 personnel, Kittle again successfully sold a route to the left as the entire Packers defense flowed in that direction, leaving him wide open as he fluidly broke back to the right for a score that ended any hope of a Green Bay revival.
San Francisco’s passing offense still had success without Kittle. The Niners had 408 passing yards in their Week 11 win over the Arizona Cardinals. However, as his touchdown proved, Kittle’s presence allows Shanahan to fully harness his creativity and attack defenses from an array of formations.
Shanahan is the master of play-calling disguise, but it is only when Kittle is healthy that he can utilize the art of deception to its full potential. As the 49ers eye a deep playoff run, Kittle’s health will be pivotal to San Francisco’s ability to continually confound defenses.