Studying 49ers tight end George Kittle and how he stresses out defenders

As football fans try to catch their collective breath after an incredible NFL Divisional Round, thoughts are beginning to turn to the AFC and NFC Championship games and how each of the remaining four teams can progress.

To do this, it helps to look at each of the four teams and highlight the potential problems they present for their opponents. For the Los Angeles Rams, one of the things they will have to worry about when the San Francisco 49ers have football, besides Deebo Samuel and the creative way the 49ers structure their offense, is the tight end George Kittle.

Kittle has been a thorn in the side of the Rams his entire NFL career. In nine games against the organization, Kittle caught 49 passes for 706 yards and five touchdowns, so you can bet the Rams will be focusing on No. 85 every game Sunday night.

Part of what makes Kittle dangerous is his effectiveness when he presents himself with opportunities to stress defenders both inside and out in space. The 49ers give Kittle those opportunities whenever possible, and the results are often positive for the offense.

In the first half of Saturday night’s win over the Green Bay Packers, Kittle opened up on that quick slant route, working against Preston Smith in space. You can see how Kittle’s alignment in the slot and the fear of an outside route break combine to emphasize defender leverage and give Kittle a path to cut inside on the inside. Tilt for a Quick Play and Throw by Jimmy Garoppolo:

The tight end frees itself vertically off the line and enters Smith’s frame after three steps. Kittle then drives his left foot into the turf, and Smith responds by opening his hips on the sideline, ever so slightly. That’s all Kittle needs to break through inside and cross the defender’s face, opening up inside after highlighting Smith’s influence outside.

All the while, Garoppolo is just waiting for Kittle to take his break.

Now, you’re probably thinking that this completion is due to confrontation, which is a good point. “Let me see Kittle do this against someone with better coverage skills, Mark.”


On this play, Kittle is working against cornerback Eric Stokes. As in the previous example, the same scenario plays out on this completion. Kittle releases vertically, gets into Stokes’ frame, accentuates his outside leverage with a hard step in that direction with his right foot, then works the cornerback’s face to open up for Garoppolo’s quick throw.

As the Rams begin their preparations for this weekend, developing a plan for Kittle, and especially those routes from the tight end, should be at or near the top of the to-do list.

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