It is only going to get more difficult for George Kittle, who set the all-time NFL single-season record for tight ends with 1,377 receiving yards this season.
Kittle is likely to be the focus of every opponent that faces the 49ers next season. And with that in mind, 49ers assistant head coach/tight ends Jon Embree has lined up a special week in Los Angeles for Kittle to help him cope with the new challenge.
Kittle and Embree will meet up with Tony Gonzalez, one of the all-time great tight ends, in February or March, Embree said on The 49ers Insider Podcast.
Embree said he believes Kittle can gain a lot from the experience of talking ball with Gonzalez, who is likely to be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend in Atlanta.
“One of the things with George is, it’s easier to be the hunter than the hunted, so to speak,” Embree said. “So now that he’s had this success, my thing with him is, 'How do you sustain it?' And how hard it’s going to be to sustain that success.
“Now, when you walk into a game, everybody is going to know where 85 is on every play. Everybody is going to (say), defensively, ‘Get your hands on 85. Get your hands on 85.’ ‘Re-route.’ ‘Jam.’ All those different things that he’s going to have to face now, that maybe he didn’t face the entire year last year.”
There are few individuals on the planet who can relate more to the challenge of being a marked man than Gonzalez, who made 14 Pro Bowls in his 17 NFL seasons and ranks behind only Jerry Rice with 1,325 career receptions.
“I just want him to understand about how he needs to work, how he needs to continue to prepare,” Embree said of Kittle. “How do you handle certain things so when those things arise he’s not sitting there trying to figure out something? I can say, ‘Hey, remember when 88 told you this.’ ‘Hey, now, 88 told you about this; this is what we got to do.’ Don’t be frustrated, because those situations are going to arise next year for him.”
Embree and Gonzalez built a lasting bond during the three seasons Embree coached tight ends with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2006 to ’09. Embree said he will go to dinner with Gonzalez and Kittle. Then, those two will work together on the field. NFL rules do not allow Embree to step on the field with Kittle before the start of the team’s offseason program in April.
“Tony knows how I work and things I want done, so Tony is going to work with him on some of those things and teach him some of the little tricks and nuances that he’s done over his career,” Embree said.
Kittle had an encouraging rookie season in 2017, catching 43 passes for 515 yards. However, he started just seven of the 15 games in which he appeared as he battled an array of injuries. This year, Kittle remained healthy, started all 16 games and caught 88 passes for 1,377 yards.
“He was a big body catch, letting the ball get on his body,” Embree said. “My thing is, if you’re 6-5 and you have the length you have, you got to use it. My expression is about playing big. So I want you to catch the ball outside your frame. Reach out and catch the ball. Use your length. You could tell he worked on that. He did a good job of plucking the ball. He did a good job of being in traffic and using his length.”
Kittle was even more impressive after getting the ball in his hands. He had 873 yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus, which is the most for any player at any position since PFF began keeping statistics in 2006.
“The mindset in our room is, ‘Make them tackle you,’” Embree said. “The rule says they have to tackle you, but you don’t have to let them tackle you.”
Embree said once a player, such as Kittle with his size and speed, drops his shoulder and runs over a player in the secondary, it changes how defensive backs approach him for the remainder of the game.
“They’re going to make a business decision. And that business decision is, ‘I don’t want to get hurt’ or ‘I don’t want to look bad,’” Embree said. “So they’re going to let you go a little bit and tackle you from behind. He has such good speed, if they try to make that business decision, it ends up being an explosive (play) for a touchdown.”