SF 49ers tight end George Kittle wasn’t available much versus the Cardinals in 2019, but the stats suggest he’ll go off versus Arizona in Week 1.
If you’re wondering who might wind up being the SF 49ers‘ game MVP for their Week 1 NFC West divisional matchup against the visiting Arizona Cardinals, you’d be smart putting your money on All-Pro tight end George Kittle.
And for a number of very good reasons.
Aside from the cliche and hyperbole Kittle-is-the-best-player-on-San Francisco’s-roster statements, and even without having to mention the 49ers could be without wide receivers Deebo Samuel (foot) and Brandon Aiyuk (hamstring), Kittle is expected to be a massive contributor against a Cardinals defense that surrendered more total yards (6,432) than any other team in 2019 and allowed the second-most passing yards (4,510) in the NFL that year, too.
Unfortunately, Kittle wasn’t able to take much advantage of this last season.
Early in Week 9, when the Niners were visiting the Cardinals in Arizona, Kittle suffered both an ankle and ribs injuries. He returned before exiting, compiling a whopping six catches for 79 yards and a bowl-over-Cardinals-safety-Budda Baker-touchdown:
Hard to forget that play.
What makes it even more impressive, however, is Kittle appeared for roughly the entirety of just one quarter of action that game. And as The Athletic’s David Lombardi pointed out, Kittle’s numbers during that stretch would have expanded out to 24 catches, 316 yards and four touchdowns:
Two weeks later, Kittle was unavailable because of his injury, opening up the door for No. 2 tight end Ross Dwelley to contribute with his own four-catch, two-touchdown performance in San Francisco’s Week 11 come-from-behind victory.
While Dwelley won’t be the SF 49ers’ offensive feature during the season opener this Sunday, the fact he also put up some serious numbers against the Cardinals suggests a notable problem with Arizona’s defense.
That problem is why Kittle could have himself yet another one of those eye-popping performances this weekend.
George Kittle, SF 49ers can take advantage of Cardinals’ bad defense vs. tight ends
Yes, Arizona made some defensive changes during the offseason, highlighted by selecting former Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons in Round 1 of this year’s NFL Draft.
But Simmons, like every other rookie in the league this year, won’t be helped by the league-wide elimination of rookie minicamps, OTAs and the preseason in light of the current pandemic. Being forced to go up against and cover the best tight end in the league right away in Week 1 is going to be a tall order for the first-round draft pick.
Simmons’ presence also doesn’t change the fact no team had more issues covering opponents’ tight ends last year than the Cardinals.
That’s an unarguable fact.
In 2019, Arizona surrendered a total of 1,148 receiving yards to tight ends, which was most in the league. What makes that stat even crazier is the fact Kittle missed all but roughly one quarter of action versus the Niners’ NFC West rivals. One can only imagine what the yardage total would have been had Kittle stayed healthy.
Even worse for the Cardinals, they surrendered a total of 16 touchdowns to tight ends over the course of the season, also the most for any defense in the league.
To put things into perspective, the No. 2 team on this inglorious list is the Cleveland Browns, who gave up 10 touchdowns to tight ends — nearly a third less of Arizona’s total allowed.
So, if you’re thinking Kittle will have a quiet day in Week 1, think again.
The 49ers and Cardinals kick off on Sunday, Sept. 13 at 4:25 p.m. ET from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.