The New England Patriots are no strangers when it comes to going up against elite tight ends this season. Whether it was the Miami Dolphins’ Mike Gesicki, the Las Vegas Raiders’ Darren Waller, or the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, their defense had to find a way to slow all of them down so far, with varying degrees of success.
Gesicki had three catches for 30 yards on opening day against the Patriots; Waller went 2-for-9 two weeks later; Kelce registered three receptions for 70 yards in Week 3. If the Patriots can hold the next elite tight end on their schedule to a similar output, they can probably feel pretty good about their performance. The San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle, after all, is arguably the best player at the position right now.
The way the Patriots are talking about him heading into the contest speaks about his status among the NFL’s tight ends.
“Kittle is very impressive. He does everything well,” said head coach Bill Belichick during a media conference call earlier this week. “It’s hard to compare his career with other players that have played 10, 12 years and so forth. What he’s able to do and what he’s done in our exposures to him is pretty impressive. He’s very good at everything — passing game, running game, run after catch, blocking, effort, big-play ability, you name it. He pretty much excels in every area.”
The former fifth-round draft pick is in the middle of another impressive campaign. While he did miss two games because of a knee injury, he is still leading his team in every major receiving category: Kittle has caught 30 passes for 380 yards and a pair of touchdowns so far this season, with his abilities as a blocker also regularly on display — something that cannot be said about the likes of Kelce and Waller, according to Patriots safety Adrian Phillips.
“He blocks way better than those guys. He’s not afraid to block. They aren’t either, but let’s just call a spade a spade: he’s a dog when it comes to blocking,” Phillips said on Tuesday. “But actually going against Kelce, he’s probably the best route-runner in the league at tight end; Waller is probably one of the fastest in the league. You kind of get a combination of both of those guys, you get Kittle who’s really balanced overall.
“He can run with the rock, his routes are good, he can block well. Just being able to go against those two guys before really helps. There’s nothing that we haven’t seen yet. We know what the challenge is, we just have to go get it done.”
Phillips will play a major role in the battle against Kittle. The veteran safety, who is in his first year after arriving in New England, has carved out a role as the team’s number one strong safety and as such has seen regular action against opposing tight ends. Together with rookie safety Kyle Dugger, and possibly with second-year cornerback Joejuan Williams as part of the mix as well, he will try to slow the 49ers’ leading receiver down.
The task will not be an easy one for Phillips and the rest of New England’s defense — Kittle is too good a player, and too versatile, to easily be eliminated from making an impact on the game.
“I think when you look at complete tight ends, he certainly stacks up there to this point from what he’s been able to do with just about anybody,” said Belichick about the 27-year-old. “Guys like [Mark] Bavaro and going back to earlier in pro football — 60s, 70s, 80s — where tight ends did everything. There was no receiving tight end or blocking tight end. Those guys, they lined up there for every play; the John Mackey’s and the Mike Ditka’s and great players like that that are in the Hall of Fame.
“They lined up on every play and blocked and ran and caught and made big plays and blocked defensive ends and everything else. So, you don’t see as many of those type of players these days, but certainly Kittle looks like he could do everything that you would want a tight end to do.”
On Sunday, Belichick and the Patriots will see up close what San Francisco asks Kittle to do. The question is whether or not they can stop it.