George Kittle must be good.
His numbers are off to a slow start in 2019. Yet everybody I’ve talked to says he’s playing better than ever.
Over the last eight games of 2018, the San Francisco 49ers tight end averaged 99 yards per game.
So far in 2019, he’s only managed 54 in both contests.
But don’t tell that to the Steelers.
“He’s the most underrated tight end,” Steelers defensive back Mike Hilton said. “He doesn’t get the recognition he should. He’s athletic. He’s fast. He makes a lot of combat catches.”
Kyle Shanahan doesn’t want to hear griping from Kittle’s fantasy football owners.
“I thought he was one of the best players on the field last week,” the 49ers coach said. “He’s one of the main reasons we had (6.2) yards a carry.”
Kittle’s blocking has been a major theme on both coasts this week. Between Shanahan’s glowing praise and that from within the Steelers locker room, Kittle’s blocking was something that apparently is akin to Orlando Pace dipped in Anthony Munoz and rolled in John Hannah.
If any of them happened to wear a tight end’s number.
Tomlin advanced that belief during his weekly news conference, speaking effusively about Kittle springing San Francisco running backs. The 49ers totaled 259 rushing yards in a 41-17 win in Cincinnati last week.
One would assume that Kittle may not be getting as many receptions because teams are paying more attention to him after a 1,377-yard season that sent him to the Pro Bowl last year.
But Shanahan says that’s not the case.
“When you’re getting the ball to one guy a lot that usually means you aren’t playing great offense,” Shanahan said of Kittle. “I think that was something we struggled with last year. When you are more balanced, and spread it around, and attack defenses, and their vulnerability, and where they are weak, you have a much better chance of being a better offense.”
Kittle has also been unlucky. He had two touchdowns called back via penalty in the opener against Tampa Bay.
Vance McDonald knows how good Kittle is. The Steelers tight end was part of a five-man position battle in San Francisco back in 2017 involving Kittle. As a rookie out of Iowa, Kittle was good enough to be named a starter. As a result, the 49ers felt comfortable trading McDonald to Pittsburgh.
“He’s unbelievable,” McDonald said. “I love watching George. He has a low center of gravity, and he has some of the best hips in the NFL for a tight end. The way he is able to get up and go, start, and restart. He is fun to watch.”
Because of those skills, Kittle creates such matchup issues, other receivers on the 49ers roster are starting to benefit.
Marquise Goodwin and Deebo Samuel combined for eight catches, 163 yards and two touchdowns last week.
“He’s strong. He plays inside,” Hilton said of Samuel. “He is bigger than most slot receivers. He uses his strength to his ability.”
Factor in, as well, that the Steelers gave up two touchdowns to Seattle’s tight end, Will Dissly, last week. And Josh Gordon caught a few passes on patterns reminiscent of Rob Gronkowski in the season opener against the Patriots. New England basically played without a tight end because of injuries and suspensions, so Gordon filled the void.
“He’s a dynamic guy,” Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds said. “We saw him on film, but we have to play our game. If we limit our mistakes and make the plays that come to us, it’ll be a big game for us.”
Perhaps new acquisition Minkah Fitzpatrick could help the Steelers secondary in that regard.
Regardless of Pittsburgh’s reinforcement, Kittle is one of the best at the position in the league. And he’s due to bust loose.
That’s a bad combination for the struggling Steelers.