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Film Room: Can 49ers TE George Kittle be stopped?

San Francisco’s offense centers around one man, and he’s a burden to contain.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In Week 1, George Kittle had 8 receptions for 54 yards and no touchdowns. That doesn’t sound too crazy, but if it wasn’t for an offensive pass interference and an illegal formation he would have had 10 for 84 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Make no mistake, the 49ers’ offense runs through Kittle. He was targeted on 10 of Jimmy Garoppolo’s 27 pass attempts. No other receiver in the scarlet and gold was targeted more than thrice.

Alignment wise, they do a lot with Kittle. He lines up as a traditional attached tight end, but he will also line up at or motion to a split alignment. He will run out cuts, verticals, crossers, screens, shuttle passes and everything in between.

Simply put: to stop the offense, you must contain Kittle.

The third-year multi-dimensional player is best on in-breaking routes and was four-for-four when targeted on these routes in Week 1. Let’s examine them in-depth.

In this first clip he is lined up as the slot receiver on the top of the screen. The Buccaneers are running a five-man pressure and playing Cover 1 with a safety deep in the middle, but no underneath middle help. When pressured, Garoppolo tends to look Kittle’s way.

Here, Kittle squares up the defender and after a hard step to the outside cuts in. Once Kittle has gained inside leverage it is nearly impossible for the defender to get around his 6’4” 250 frame to make a play on the ball. This is easy pickins for Garoppolo.

When a team sends a player in motion, it is often with the intent of getting that very play open.

The next two clips demonstrate this. In the first clip, Kittle is lined up wide, but motions in creating a bunch. The 49ers run what is commonly referred to as a star concept where the three receivers cross each other and hitch up. Where does the ball go? It goes to Kittle who ends up running the middle hitch.

In the second clip, they start out in a bunch look, and Kittle motions out wide. They still run a star route, and Kittle catches the ball in the middle once again.

In both cases the motion is all about getting Kittle open.

Now I would like to talk about how to stop Kittle. As you may have noticed, straight-man coverage wasn’t doing the trick for the Buccaneers. Bengals safety Shawn Williams struggled trying to cover tight ends man-to-man in the preseason, and faster cornerbacks will not match up physically with him. Zone coverage will work at times, but Kittle is also adept at finding holes in zones.

Kittle is the focus of the 49ers’ offense and must be the focus of any defense who hopes to stop them. To stop Kittle you must be willing to commit multiple players to him.

To dig deeper in on this, let’s look at one specific formation where the 49ers targeted Kittle multiple times in Week 1. In the below clip, the 49ers are in 11 personnel. They have a back in the backfield, two wide receivers spilt out to the top of the screen, and Kittle lined up at tight end along with a third receiver on the bottom. In a true breakdown, I would account for where the running back is aligned in relationship to the quarterback, but for our purposes here, it not necessary.

Once again, Garoppolo is under pressure and dumps the ball off fast to Kittle who is basically just running into his quarterback’s line of sight. The Buccaneers are playing man and the safety covering Kittle is 20 yards away. Kittle turns this play into a touchdown, but a penalty negates it.

So how do you cover Kittle?

It will not be one coverage and one coverage only. No coverage is without its flaws and different formations and situations must be treated differently, but here is one idea.

The Bengals have some talented cornerbacks. They must trust them to play man on San Francisco’s wide receivers. This offense is not about Marquise Goodwin or Dante Pettis, it is about Kittle. William Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick, and B.W. Webb need to be able to play man-to-man against these receivers to free up resources to cover Kittle. This may be a good game to start Darius Phillips. He is excellent in man coverage and matches up well with smaller, shiftier receivers like Goodwin, Richie James, and Deebo Samuel .

The strong-side defensive end should not allow Kittle to release freely, in fact a key factor in the defensive game plan should be getting a lot of hands on Kittle and never allowing him to make a move without being perturbed.

The MIKE linebacker will have to play man-to-man with the running back. Tevin Coleman was the biggest receiving threat at the position, but he will miss this game with a high ankle sprain. His running mate Matt Brieda, however, is no slouch. Preston Brown against a running back is the toughest matchup the Bengals will have in this defense, but it will be necessary at times to give Kittle the attention he requires and be able to stop the run.

Once he releases, Kittle should be double covered. With his size, a large linebacker like Nick Vigil should be involved. The linebacker would play inside and underneath him, while a safety would play over the top and be aggressive on any outbreaking routes. Personally, I think Brandon Wilson would be ideal, but Williams will work fine.

In short, Vigil takes away the inside routes that are the 49ers’ priority, while the Williams stays on top and breaks on out-routes, and Jessie Bates III is an added line of defense as the Cover 1 safety who plays over everything.

As a change up, they could play Vigil to the outside, and Bates to the inside with Williams playing the deep middle safety. When Garoppolo gets used to seeing Vigil playing tight inside of Kittle and suddenly sees him on the outside, he may miss Bates playing inside. This could create an opportunity for an interception by Bates.

A good defensive coordinator always looks for opportunities that can be exploited. As noted above, when Garoppolo is pressured, he looks for Kittle.

In the diagram below, the defense shows a man blitz. The SAM linebacker is coming off of the edge and strong safety is playing loose on the tight end. Like the nullified touchdown clip mentioned earlier, Garoppolo will see that he has an opportunity to hit Kittle over the middle, but it’s a trap.

On the snap the MIKE backer turns and runs to get underneath Kittle on this route and put himself in position to intercept the pass. The strong safety is still in man coverage over the top of Kittle, so it is safe for the MIKE backer to go for the pick and since the quarterback will be under pressure the ball should come out fast.

Twice the 49ers came out in the formation shown above and motioned Kittle across the formation to become the second receiver in a trips look and both times they threw him a bullet screen.

The video cuts off the wide receiver on the bottom, but in the clip below you can see Kittle motion across the formation. He sets up immediately as the two receivers block the defense backs. This is a third-and-long play and they want to get the ball in the hands of their best player.

Twice they ran this motion, and both times they ran the same play. If they are going to be this predictable, the defense needs to exploit them.

When the motion comes the defense must communicate and change the defense. Bates will rock down and on the snap break well inside of Kittle. His goal is the interception. He does not wait to see the ball thrown, he breaks inside for the pick immediately on the snap. With Bates out of the coverage, they have only six defenders available, so the remaining defensive backs and linebackers run a 3-deep/3-under coverage used for zone blitzes, commonly known as “Bronco coverage.” This puts the defense in a safe position in case the offense is not running the screen.

If Bates times it right, it is not just an interception, but also a touchdown going the other way. If they run something different, or he just misses, they have a safe coverage behind him and enough players to rally to the tackle if the screen is completed.

This is the type of calculated risk that defensive coordinators should take.

On another play a wide receiver motioned into the No. 2 position and threw him the screen. This defense could be used with anyone moving into that position

Similarly, this formation was used as an example, but the same man concepts and opportunities to steal the can be adjusted to other formations. Vigil can move and play tight on Kittle even if he is split out as the widest receiver. In that case, it would be Vigil making contact with him at the line of scrimmage, since the defensive end will not be extended.

Answer Book

Head coach Kyle Shanahan is very good at his job and will have answers, but if the Bengals can take Kittle out of the equation, it will make life very hard on the 49ers’ offense.

One adjustment that was shown above is running “bunch”. Bunch makes man coverage difficult and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will want to have at least one alternate coverage on deck.

Another is throwing the ball to running backs. Brown will have a tough time playing man, especially when the running back splits out wide (this also creates a gap problem in the defense drawn above). Again, Anarumo will need to have an alternate defense if the running back is giving them problems as well as an adjustment to him motioning out.

Finally, crossing patterns can create picks that get wide receivers open in man.

Again, Anarumo must have an answer and it probably means running some sort of zone or match concept situationnaly.

Below is an example of a few of the things just discussed. Coleman motions out of the backfield and runs a crosser for a good gain.

This offense is all about Kittle and the defense must center around taking him away.

If I had written this article a year ago, it would have been answered by a chorus of “Marvin Lewis would never!”

That is what makes this season exciting. Players have raved about how intelligent Zac Taylor is and the adjustments he made in-game. Now it is Anarumo’s turn to show he can put together a dynamite game plan to shut down an elite player.