The San Francisco 49ers will be without arguably their best player on each side of the football, presenting a golden opportunity for the New York Jets to pull off an upset.
The debate between Kittle vs. Travis Kelce for the title of “best tight end in the world” does not have a definitive correct answer, but I lean towards Kittle. Why? His nasty blocking.
Kelce is a solid blocker himself, but Kittle is an absolute game-changer in this facet.
In 2019, Kittle ranked second among tight ends in run blocking snaps per game (26.3) behind only Baltimore’s Nick Boyle (29.9). He amassed a ton of positive impact over the large workload, posting the fourth-best run blocking grade at Pro Football Focus among qualified tight ends (76.2).
Kittle has single-handedly brought widespread attention to a part of the tight end position that has always been extremely crucial but has never gotten enough of a spotlight to match its importance. Now, thanks to Kittle’s dominance (and that of Baltimore’s group), fans are paying more attention to tight end blocking, and teams around the league are beginning to trend back toward placing a premium value on blocking ability at the position.
For the 49ers, Kittle’s blocking is an integral cog in their greatest offensive strength.
San Francisco’s offense is predicated upon a run game that ranked second in yards (144.6 per game) and seventh in DVOA last season. Specifically, that rushing attack is built upon the outside run game. The 49ers ranked third in the NFL with 253 rush attempts (15.8 per game) directed left end, left tackle, right tackle, or right end (in the official play-by-play), and on those runs, they ranked fifth in yards per attempt (5.5).
So, the Niners are built around their run game, which is built around their outside run game. And that outside run game is built around Kittle.
Take a look at how San Francisco fared on rushes directed outside of the tight end in two games without Kittle last season. Shown is where each number would have ranked among all 32 teams over the course of the 2019 regular season.
Without Kittle, the core identity of San Francisco’s offense completely evaporates.
Kittle is able to do things as a blocker that most tight ends cannot dream of. Watch here as Kittle creates an 18-yard run on a pitch play. Kittle assists the right tackle in pinning the 6-tech inside and then gets out in space, where he takes complete control of the middle linebacker downfield. Raheem Mostert‘s job is an easy one thanks to Kittle.
There are very few tight ends who are capable of manhandling a linebacker in space like that, and one of them is certainly not Jordan Reed, who will be taking Kittle’s place on Sunday.
Reed is known for his upside as a receiver, but run blocking is not his game. In his most recent season (2018), Reed posted a run blocking grade of 57.9 that ranked at the 44th percentile among qualified tight ends.
The 49ers put Reed on the field for only five run plays against Arizona last week, and Reed assured everyone in that short amount of time that he is no Kittle. On this play, Reed looks to seal Cardinals linebacker De’Vondre Campbell at the second level, but as Reed attempts to engage, Campbell easily swats Reed’s hand away and eludes him to make the tackle.
Reed lines up at the end of the line of scrimmage on this play, to the right of Kittle. Reed leaves the first level blocks to the fullback (Kyle Juszczyk) and pulling left guard (Laken Tomlinson), heading to the second level to look for some work. Reed gets caught in traffic and is late to pick off the safety (Budda Baker), who dodges Reed and gets involved in the tackle on Tevin Coleman.
The tenacity from Reed on those two plays is a far cry from what Kittle makes his opponents prepare for. And that’s hardly even a knock on Reed – Kittle is just different. His effort level and pure talent as a blocker are in another stratosphere compared to everyone else.
With some assistance from his right tackle (Mike McGlinchey) on this play, Kittle seals the outside linebacker (Jaylon Ferguson) to open up room on the edge for what becomes a 41-yard Mostert touchdown. Kittle does a great job getting his inside hand into Ferguson’s chest to move him upfield, then readjusts and torques his body to drive Ferguson towards the sideline, seal him out of the C-gap, and define the lane for Mostert.
San Francisco’s trademark run game is not the same without ferocious #85. Not even close. That’s going to be a big deal against a Jets team whose greatest strength is stopping the run – especially considering they might be getting even better in that facet if a healthy Avery Williamson returns.
Sherman elevates his team. When he sits, his defense gets noticeably worse. That simple. It’s happened every time he has been sidelined in his NFL career.