Silverstein: How Packers can try to contain 49ers tight end George Kittle

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - Long before San Francisco was using tight end George Kittle to make life impossible for opposing defenses, they had a four-time Pro Bowler at the position who made teams pay for whatever extra coverage they were devoting to receiver Jerry Rice.

Brent Jones didn’t put up the individual numbers Kittle has this season — he didn’t have to with Rice around — but he was a major outlet for quarterback Steve Young, especially in 1995, when he was targeted a career-high 101 times and caught 60 passes for 595 yards and three touchdowns.

Kittle, the first-team All-Pro selection who caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games, has taken the pass-catching tight end model that Jones, Keith Jackson and Shannon Sharpe made popular in the mid-1990s and raised it to a new level.

Not only can Kittle get open anywhere on the field, he can block like a mad man.

As the Packers prepare for an NFC championship game showdown with the 49ers Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, they must come to terms with the fact they allowed Kittle to catch six passes for 129 yards and a touchdown in a 37-8 regular-season loss Nov. 24.

 Can they keep him in check?

"I thought the (Minnesota) Vikings had a couple of athletes that could maybe take away Kittle," Jones told Bay Area radio station KNBR this week. "I don't think the Packers do. I think we're going to see a big George Kittle (game) this week, for sure.

"They're not going to be able to do what the Vikings did to Kittle, and there's too many other things, now, that they have to account for, run-game-wise, and I just think the Packers are outmanned."

Nov 24, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) runs past Green Bay Packers strong safety Adrian Amos (31) during the second quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

It definitely appeared that way back in ’95, as well, when third-year coach Mike Holmgren brought his team to Candlestick Park for a divisional playoff game against the No.  2-seeded 49ers. It was Holmgren’s first game against his hometown team and the organization through which he rose under the tutelage of legendary coach Bill Walsh.

During preparations for the game, Holmgren met with defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur and his staff to provide intel on the players he once coached.

“I went into the coaches’ meeting room and I told them I thought we could bother Brent Jones and Jerry Rice,” Holmgren recalled this week. “That was the extent of it. ‘Here’s the information, now you have to figure out how to do it.’

“When you are facing a great player, you have to do something or you get what Travis Kelce did for Kansas City (10 catches for 134 yards and three touchdowns) last week.”

What Shurmur came up with for Jones was Wayne Simmons. The 6-2, 245-pound linebacker was big, fast and nasty. He was a full-time starter for the first time in ’95 and had compiled 91 tackles and four sacks in the regular-season.

On San Francisco’s first play from scrimmage, Simmons crushed running back Adam Walker, causing him to fumble. Cornerback Craig Newsome scooped up the ball and ran 31 yards for a touchdown.

The rest of the game, Shurmur had Simmons line up over Jones and beat him up in the 5-yard bump zone. Simmons was relentless and got away with a lot more than officials would probably allow today, but it set a tone for the entire defense in a 27-17 victory.

Jones caught eight passes for 112 yards, but he had just two catches for 39 yards in the first half and most of his other catches were the result of quarterback Steve Young throwing 65 times.

“I think you could do that today, but you would need the right player,” Holmgren said. “You would need a Wayne Simmons, a guy that physical. I think it’s hard because of the way tight ends are being used. These tight ends are pretty athletic.

“The 49ers guy is really good. It’s hard to do that with that offense.”

The Packers must do something because the plan they had for Kittle the first time around wasn’t good enough. Kittle was a game-time decision because of an ankle injury he had been nursing and only played 38 snaps, so he wasn’t as healthy as he will be Sunday.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was asked if the Packers — or any other team — could line up and bang the 6-4, 250-pound Kittle every time he went out for a pass.

“I don’t think you can do that every play, especially, because you might have issues against the run or gap issues, but certainly in passing situations, there’s certain players we use the term 'free access' that you don’t want to give free access to,” Pettine said. “So, you want to have a plan for somebody in front of him or whether it’s somebody playing man with help on top.”

It sounds good in theory, but in the first meeting the Packers didn’t do it. Some of Kittle’s biggest plays came with “free access” in which he was able to fire off the line of scrimmage without anyone trying to knock him off his route.

From an in-line position he caught an 18-yard pass in front of the linebackers on one and ran behind the linebackers for another for 22 yards. From the slot, he ran down the seam for a 22-yard gain. And on his 61-yard touchdown pass, he cut across the field untouched and was wide open due to a blown coverage.

The Packers used several people to cover Kittle. Sometimes it was safeties Adrian Amos or Darnell Savage. Sometimes it was cornerback Tramon Williams or dime corner Chandon Sullivan. Other times he was bracketed with two players.

“There’s been certain things, certain moments where he’s been stopped,” inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. “It’s not like he’s scoring touchdowns every play. It’s certain things that they (opponents) have done to slow him down and that type of thing.

“Yeah, he’s a great player. It’s one of those things, same as last week, we stopped (Seattle quarterback) Russell Wilson enough to win the game. It’s one of those things to make sure you stop him enough to not allow him to take over the game.”

There’s no question Pettine could use outside linebackers Za’Darius and Preston Smith to engage Kittle when he is lined up in-line or flexed just off the tackle. It would be one way to disrupt the timing between Kittle and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

But it would also mean the linebacker would be late to rushing the passer since he’d have to bump Kittle before going after the quarterback.

If Holmgren could offer advice to Shurmur on how to stop the 49ers, it follows that LaFleur would be able to help Pettine defend Kittle given he was on the ground floor of developing the offense 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan employs.

When asked about it, LaFleur was coy.

“Certainly, there’s things that you can do, whether it’s really try to hold them up on the line of scrimmage, or there are certain (other) things that you can do. But certainly, we have conversations about if he has any questions.

“It’s more scheme-related I would say than as opposed to just, ‘Hey, how do we just lock down this person?’”

Whatever the case, the two are going to need a plan because they can’t let Kittle dominate the game the way he did in November.

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