The Green Bay Packers face another tough test this week, going against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Night Football. If they hope to pull out a win, containing tight end George Kittle will have to be a top priority for the defense.
After an injury-plagued 2020 season, Kittle is back and easing into his role within Kyle Shanahan’s offense. He has only caught eight passes for 95 yards through two games, but continues to be a key blocker for the 49ers and their outside zone running game.
The Packers have felt Kittle’s presence in previous matchups, most noticeably in their 2019 regular-season contest against San Francisco. The All-Pro tight end gashed Green Bay’s defense with six catches for 129 yards and a touchdown in a 37-8 blowout victory. Kittle was held to just one reception for 19 yards in their second matchup of the year in the NFC Championship game, but the 49ers only attempted eight passes the entire game as they imposed their will to the tune of 285 rushing yards.
San Francisco will likely need a bigger game from Kittle this Sunday, simply due to how banged up the rest of his teammates are. Running backs JaMycal Hasty, Elijah Mitchell, and Trey Sermon have all shown up on this week’s injury report, while playmakers like Raheem Mostert, Jalen Hurd and Richie James are all currently on injured reserve.
Meanwhile, promising second-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk is struggling to get involved in the offense with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. After a strong rookie season, Aiyuk has only caught one pass for six yards through two games.
That leaves few options for Garoppolo to trust in the passing game, giving Kittle an opportunity to make more of an impact against the Packers. The Lions showed that tight ends can feast against Green Bay’s defense after T.J. Hockenson finished Monday night’s game with eight receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown.
De’Vondre Campbell was primarily tasked with covering Hockenson last week, and defensive coordinator Joe Barry could ask the veteran linebacker to do the same with Kittle. Campbell was able to grab his first interception as a Packer in Week 3, but he was targeted on a well-thrown and well-timed rub route concept in the red zone for a touchdown.
Another red zone rub concept from the Lions.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 22, 2021
Not sure if they want Stokes switching on this one to a tight end. Hard to defend a good throw/play design. pic.twitter.com/7SVesZBr55
Despite the rub, Campbell did a good job of limiting the separation between himself and Hockenson. However, Shanahan may want to try a similar concept with Kittle in the red zone on Sunday night considering the Lions had success multiple times with crossing routes in the red zone.
Campbell won’t be the only player matched up on Kittle. The defense will likely try to get other players matched up on Kittle, particularly their two safeties in Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage. Neither has played particularly well to start the season, however. Savage has already given up two touchdowns on three targets, while Amos has allowed a touchdown on seven targets according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Amos may be a preferable matchup when comparing the two safeties, however, given his physical play style and larger frame at 6’0” and 214 pounds.
Barry could try to get creative in other ways with his personnel. He could try and line up his top cover player in Jaire Alexander, kicking him inside. However, that runs the risk of exposing the boundaries with a rookie in Eric Stokes and a struggling vet in Kevin King on the outside.
The run game will be a completely different animal for Barry to handle, and one he might not have an answer for. Kittle is notorious for opening up rushing lanes, but the Packers lack any true run-stopping talent on their defensive line outside of Kenny Clark on the interior.
Preston Smith could be crucial in stopping the run and neutralizing Kittle’s effectiveness as a blocker. The 28-year-old has had a very good start to the 2021 season as an edge setter and run stuffer. He is currently PFF’s top-graded player on Green Bay’s defense, both overall and defending the run.
In more positive news, thought Preston Smith had a very solid game. pic.twitter.com/v8kbXOOGGR— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 14, 2021
Kittle’s effectiveness as a pass-catcher and run-blocker will have a big impact on whether or not the 49ers can control the game and pull out a decisive win. Barry and the defense are going to have their hands full, and they might not have enough firepower right now to handle Shanahan’s offensive play style.
However, things started to click for the Packers defense in the second half of Week 2, and if that trend can continue into Sunday night’s game, then Green Bay has a shot at pulling off its first statement win of the 2021 season.