George Kittle has emerged as a bright spot during the 49ers’ 1-4 start. The second-year pro ranks third among NFL tight ends with 399 receiving yards, behind Zach Ertz and Travis Kelce, and has easily been San Francisco’s most potent threat in the passing game.
But Kittle has also been vital in the running game as a blocker, which has become the underappreciated part of his skill set. He was a problem for Arizona’s defense in Sunday’s game, routinely taking Cardinals defenders out of the play by clearing space for his running backs.
“I was told the first time I was on campus at Iowa, you can’t play tight end at Iowa if you can’t run block,” Kittle said. “So over the course of the five years I was there, I learned, got better at it.”
Kittle fell to the fifth round of the NFL draft despite posting some of the best testing numbers at the scouting combine. It’s likely his less-than-spectacular numbers in Iowa’s run-heavy offense played a role. He never had more than 22 catches and 314 yards in a single season.
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“He was a very good blocker in college. I think that’s what most people saw in him. He blocked a lot,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “The way his body leverage is, the way he has a forward lean and how he can drive people. He’s got a very good balance. His feet are always under him, so it makes him a good blocker.”
Kittle has said his improved understanding of the playbook in his second season has allowed him to play faster, which has led to improved blocking. But he’s also shown a commitment to blocking reminiscent of his college days when he wasn’t the Hawkeyes’ top receiving option.
“You can’t run block if you don’t want to do it,” said Kittle. “There’s a lot of guys that are big enough that can just kind of get in the way. But if you want to have good technique, you want to move guys, you want pancake guys, you want to do anything that’s meaningful, you have to want to do it. So that’s something that I definitely took a lot of pride in at Iowa, and I take a lot of pride in it now. People are a lot better. If you can get someone pretty good in the NFL, it’s a really good feeling.”
Kittle might have some extra motivation to block well during Monday night’s game against the Packers. The 49ers this week were flexed out of their Sunday night game against the first-place Rams Oct. 21. They were pushed to the afternoon slot instead, with the league electing to showcase the Chiefs and Bengals.
“And no one really expects us to win Monday night,” said Kittle. “Screw them, we’re going to do everything we can to show up and we’re going to ball out — and that’s about it.”
Receivers banged up — Wideouts Pierre Garçon (knee, shoulder) and Trent Taylor (back) missed practice for the second straight day Friday.
Rookie Dante Pettis has already been ruled out, Shanahan said, which means the 49ers could be without three of their top receivers.
Taylor’s injury dates to an offseason back procedure. He could miss multiple games, which would likely lead to rookie seventh-round draft pick Richie James taking over in the slot.
Offensive line returns to the field — It appears the 49ers will have their starting offensive line intact as left tackle Joe Staley, center Weston Richburg and right guard Mike Person returned to the practice field Friday after sitting Thursday due to their recent knee injuries.
No sign of Breida — Running back Matt Breida missed his second straight practice after rolling his left ankle against Arizona.
Breida’s status for the Packers game is up in the air after Shanahan said earlier in the week he was expecting the second-year pro to be listed as doubtful.