The 49ers are likely to be without tight end George Kittle for their critical game Monday night against the Seattle Seahawks, Kyle Shanahan said Saturday.
Kittle, who’s become known for his high pain tolerance during his three seasons, was officially listed as doubtful to play. There would have to be significant changes in his status to be available for what many are calling San Francisco’s biggest game since 2014. Shanahan is still holding out a sliver of hope his star tight end could suit up against the NFC West rival.
“Just because it’s George. If it was any other player, I would probably say he’s out,” Shanahan said. “If it goes like this, he will be out. George isn’t a guy who needs to be out at practice. We know he’s doing everything he can and we’ll see how he feels on Monday, but things would have to change.”
Kittle missed practice all week and wasn’t seen in the locker room while receiving treatment. He sustained knee and ankle injuries on the first play from scrimmage during the Halloween victory over the Cardinals when he banged his left knee on Chandler Jones’ helmet and it appeared to hyper extend his leg.
Kittle left the game momentarily but returned to score a 30-yard touchdown. He recorded six catches for 79 yards before exiting the game in the fourth quarter. He’s been the team’s most productive pass catcher with 46 catches for 541 yards through eight games and has only missed one game in his career. Kittle had an MRI on Friday that revealed issues with both his ankle and knee, Shanahan said.
Replacing Kittle would have to be a group effort. Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo are the only other tights ends on the active roster. Veteran Garrett Celek had his 21-day practice window opened up this week but he remains on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) following offseason back surgery. Celek could be activated in time for Monday, but he said Friday that was unlikely. The 49ers also have tight end Daniel Helm on the practice squad.
Complicating San Francisco’s roster situation: the team is currently carrying two kickers, as Robbie Gould sustained a quadriceps injury Tuesday which led to the signing of rookie Chase McLaughlin, a former Charger. Gould is also listed as doubtful for Monday.
The good news for San Francisco is fullback Kyle Juszczyk is expected to play after missing four games with a knee sprain, which could help make up for Kittle’s blocking in the run game. Juszczyk wasn’t listed on Saturday’s status report.
“It’s similar to when I went down to where guys just fill in that position,” Juszczyk said of trying to replace Kittle. “So, in my case, Ross came in there and we didn’t change too much schematically. Kyle didn’t just draw up a new offense when one guy went down. We feel like we have guys that can step in and fill the role of even key starters if they need too.”
The addition of receiver Emmanuel Sanders before the trade deadline could make up for Kittle’s absence through the air. Sanders led San Francisco with 112 yards on seven catches in Arizona, becoming the team’s first receiver to have 100 yards this season.
Shanahan has become adept at replacing key players on offense throughout the season. Monday will likely be the first time he’s had his starting tackles, Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, since Week 2. Staley and McGlinchey are listed as questionable. It appears both are likely to return after Staley sustained a hairline fracture in his fibula Week 2 and McGlinchey had surgery to repair a torn meniscus the second week of October.
Key to mixing and matching with different personnel is Shanahan’s emphasis on having players work at certain spots on the formation, not only at one position. For example, a receiver, running back or tight end could line up in the slot and split out wide, and their responsibilities don’t change based on what position they play.
“They really are just kind of nameless positions. We all kind of do similar things,” Juszczyk said.
Which could mean Juszczyk, the team’s talented fullback, could do a lot of the things Kittle does as a tight end. Or the 49ers could vary the personnel groupings further by using more three-receiver sets, which worked effectively while rushing for 232 yards against the Carolina Panthers Oct. 27.
“I think if we are without George, it’s impossible (to replace) a player like him,” McGlinchey said. “But we’re very fortunate to be in a situation where we have a head coach that knows how to combat certain things like that. And other players that are ready to step up into roles that have proven time and time again that they can be counted on.”
Trent Taylor unlikely to play this season
Slot receiver Trent Taylor, whom Shanahan said had the best training camp of any offensive player, is unlikely to play this year after having a second surgery on his injured foot.
Taylor initially got hurt in early August and expected to be back Week 4, but wound up going on injured reserve due to complications in his recovery. His foot became irritated after the surgery so a second procedure was required. Team doctors found out Taylor had an infection when his cast was removed two weeks later.
“They had to start that over again,” Shanahan said. “So once he had the setback for the second surgery, he was just going to go until Week 8 instead of Week 4. Once the infection happened, then he realty got behind the eight ball on that.”
Taylor has 69 catches for 645 yards in 29 games after getting drafted in 2017. He was expected to be one of the team’s leaders in receptions this season after his strong start to training camp.
“It’s been as unfortunate (a situation) as a guy could have,” said Shanahan. “I know he’s pretty upset about it, but that’s why I don’t expect him back this year but I know he’ll be back here next year and we are very glad he will be.”
▪ Running back Raheem Mostert (knee) and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (foot, quadriceps) are also listed as questionable. Witherspoon practiced this week for the first time since sustaining his foot sprain Week 3 againt the Steelers. He was expected to return to the lineup sooner but he strained his quad.
▪ After missing the first two practices of the week, the Seahawks didn’t list defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (toe, knee) or offensive tackle Duane Brown (biceps, knee) on the status report, indicating they are expected to play.
The only players Seattle listed on its status report: guard Phil Haynes (ankle), safety Delano Hill (elbow) as questionable.