MIAMI, Fla. — It was Aug. 19, 2017 and the 49ers were playing the Denver Broncos in their second preseason game after hosting joint practices all week.
On the third play of the third quarter, 49ers tight ends coach Jon Embree saw it. C.J. Beathard threw a short three-yard pass to George Kittle and the tight end broke multiple tackles while running another 26 yards for a touchdown.
That was what Embree had been asking the rookie to do since he arrived in Santa Clara: Run through people.
“He finally broke a couple tackles and ran it in for a touchdown,” Embree told NBC Sports Bay Area. “That was kind of a little foreshadowing. I remember him coming to the sideline after that saying, ‘You’re right! You’re right!’ Because I had been harping on him all camp about finishing.”
“When that moment happened it was like, 'Alright, here we go.' I told him, ‘You do something once, you can definitely do it again,’ so now that’s the goal.”
What Kittle can do after the catch is rare. In his third NFL season, he led the league for tight ends and wide receivers with 621 total yards after the catch. In 2018, he led the entire league in yards after catch with 873 yards, giving him an average of 9.9 yards.
“The way his body is wired he has an uncanny ability to take on tackles and absorb it, but he has such good balance it doesn’t knock him over,” Embree explained. “Just learning how to use that and attacking the guy trying to tackle him I felt like would give him the opportunity to be one of those guys who are great with the ball after the catch.”
Kittle not only has honed his craft in breaking tackles, he does it at big moments in the game. He has been a clutch receiver for Jimmy Garoppolo, more often than not, helping the team convert third downs.
“I think he’s the best in the NFL with the ball in his hands whether it’s breaking tackles to get a touchdown or breaking tackles to get a key first down or whatever it is that needs to be done,” Embree said.
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“He’s shown an uncanny ability or a knack for making the play that you need made at the time you need to make it. That’s nothing you can coach or teach or anything. It’s something in him that allows him to do that."
Kittle’s postseason stats have been minimal but he has been an important contributor in the run game as a blocker. The team has not needed to throw the ball with such a successful ground game, but guaranteed that the third-year tight end will be ready when his number is called.
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Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.