Film Study: How Can the Patriots Slow Down George Kittle?

After dropping to 2-3 last Sunday against the Denver Broncos, the Patriots will look to bounce back against an injury-riddled, but still very talented San Francisco 49ers football team. The 49ers come into the Week 7 showdown sitting at 3-3. 

The 49ers are a tough matchup for a number of reasons, their zone run scheme and their strong secondary being a few examples, but the matchup many will be focused on is how the Patriots defend George Kittle. The Patriots have faced several great tight ends this year, Darren Waller in Week 3 and Travis Kelce in Week 4, but this week they’ll be facing a different animal. Kittle is the best all-around tight end in the NFL. In this week’s film study, we are going to look at what makes Kittle so hard to defend, and how Bill Belichick and the New England defense will try and contain him.

What Makes George Kittle So Tough to Defend

One of the many things that makes Kittle such a tough matchup is his combination of speed and size. He is listed at 6’4″ 250 lbs. It’s rare to see such a fast tight end like Kittle, play so extremely physical. In today’s NFL, a lot of tight ends play like bigger wide receivers, but that’s not the case with Kittle. While he does have the receiving talent of a receiver he’s also a really good blocker. Another aspect Kittle excels in is his route running. 

Here, Kittle is lined up in the slot at the top of the formation in press coverage. He makes a quick jab step to his inside and then he works upfield on a fade. What’s so scary from a defensive perspective about this play is how quickly and easily Kittle separates from the defensive back. The whole point of matching up a defensive back with Kittle is so that he has trouble separating, but it’s clear that doesn’t usually work. 

As good as Kittle is talent-wise, Kyle Shanahan also does a great job of hiding him in the offense and putting him in positions to succeed.

In this clip, the 49ers are going to fake a wide zone action in the backfield. They then leak out the center and left tackle for a screen to Kittle at the top of the formation. The fake works even better because the 49ers send Kittle in a wham motion in the backfield.

This entire concept creates a couple of issues for linebackers and the secondary. First, the action in the backfield is going to get any linebacker thinking wide zone, which will then pull them away from where the offense wants to go with the ball. Second, the wham motion from Kittle, which the Niners use frequently, adds another layer of deception that the defense has to diagnose. All of this leads to an easy pass and catch for the 49ers offense. New England has to make it a point of emphasis to locate Kittle pre-snap. If they don’t locate Kittle or they lose him mid-play, big plays will happen.

This is another clip showing how well San Francisco hides Kittle. They essentially replicate the same action in the backfield on this play as they did in the second clip. The wide zone action has been so successful for the 49ers that the defense has to honor it. As the Eagles swarm to the fake handoff, the 49ers slip Kittle across the formation and get the ball out to him with plenty of room to run. Kittle is hard to bring down in the open field.

Patriots Game Plan For Covering George Kittle

Kittle isn’t easily comparable to any tight end in the NFL, but the closest to his skillset that the Patriots have played this season is Travis Kelce. The comparison relates to their route running, speed, and playmaking ability. Both players are also a heavy point of emphasis in their respective offensive systems. However, Kittle beats Kelce when it comes to blocking and physicality. We also think Kittle has more top-end speed. 

When New England battled the Chiefs they did a really good job of mixing personnel against Kelce. Whether it was Jason McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Joejuan Williams, or Devin McCourty helping over the top, each player played a role in slowing Kelce down. Adrian Phillips has also shown capable of guarding tight ends. The secondary held Kelce to just three receptions in Week 4.

On this first play, J. McCourty is locked up with Kelce. He does a good job of shadowing Kelce, but the key to this play is John Simon. Simon is lined up on the outside of the right tackle. Right after the snap, Simon turns to Kelce. If Kelce were to run a route across the field, Simon would have been in a perfect position to knock him off his route. With Simon on the inside of Kelce, it allowed J. McCourty to play with leverage to the outside. Getting physical and knocking guys off their route is imperative when playing dynamic tight ends like Kelce and Kittle. Doing this affects the offenses’ timing and allows a little bit more time for pressure to get to the quarterback.

This is clearly the best example of the Patriots getting aggressive with Kelce and slowing down the Chiefs’ timing. At the bottom of the screen, Kelce begins to run a crossing route. Shilique Calhoun takes one step upfield like he is going to rush, then bails to light up Kelce. The hit caused a major disruption in the play. If you make solid contact with a receiver you can completely terminate the route, as we see here.

We wanted to highlight this clip for a few reasons. First, this is an outstanding play by the rookie Dugger. He’s in man coverage against one of the better tight ends in the league, yet he’s able to sift through traffic and make a great play before the sticks. Secondly, it’s important to note the rotation of players on Kelce. In the last three clips, we’ve seen J. McCourty, Williams, and now Dugger all get a crack at guarding Kelce. Rotating defenders helped New England give the Chiefs a variety of different looks.

We should also note that guarding a playmaker like Kelce or Kittle takes a full team effort, not just one, two, or even three players. Multiple times throughout the Chiefs game we saw edge rushers or linebackers commit to knocking Kelce off his route. That’s the type of complementary football Belichick always talks about.

Final Thoughts

Just like when the New England secondary took on Kelce, we expect the Patriots to mix up their coverage against Kittle. We don’t see them settling into just one coverage. It’s possible the Patriots can confuse Jimmy Garoppolo by disguising their coverages, which is something they had success doing to Patrick Mahomes in Week 4

In terms of who’s tasked with guarding Kittle, we think we will see a solid amount of Dugger and J. McCourty. Williams, on the other hand, has been solid this season, but we think he may struggle to run vertically with Kittle. Dugger and J. McCourty have better top-end speed and they should be able to keep up on deeper routes. 

Lastly, unlike with the Chiefs and Kelce, the Patriots should be able to devote more of their defense to stopping Kittle. That’s not to say the 49ers don’t have other weapons because they certainly do, namely Deebo Samuel. But, the Chiefs weapons are among the best in the NFL, and Tyreek Hill specifically, needed a lot of attention. The secondary doubling Kittle, as they did to Waller in Week 3, feels like a strong possibility. At the end of the day, this is another chance for Belichick and the elite secondary to put together another masterful performance against an elite weapon.

Check out PatsBuzz contributor Cameron Ciano’s podcast “Couch Coaches”. He touches on multiple Patriots and NFL topics.

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