LOS ANGELES — After tweaking his groin during Friday’s practice, the San Francisco 49ers’ biggest offensive weapon — tight end George Kittle — is active for the opening game of divisional play against the Los Angeles Rams.
After setting a single-season tight end receiving yards record a year ago at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Kittle has caught 23 balls for 235 yards and one touchdown in four games. With fullback Kyle Juszczyk out for four to six weeks with a knee injury, Kittle is expected to play a larger role in the offense, even if that doesn’t mean more catches.
Kittle and Ross Dwelley will likely both see more blocking snaps as San Francisco looks to find a way to replace Juszczyk’s versatile skill set. Kittle came into the league as a blocking tight end, and evolved into one of Jimmy Garoppolo’s most dependable receiving targets. Most tight ends in today’s game come in as developed pass catchers, but have to learn how to block.
“It’s a lot of technique, but at the end of the day, it comes down to strength, effort, man-on-man, who’s going to win?” Garoppolo said this week. “Thankfully, I’ve never had to do that, but yeah, George is great at both of them.
“For a guy who just broke the tight end record last year for most yards and everything and then to come in and block the way he blocks, you just don’t see that every day in the NFL. You’ve got to tip your hat to him.”
Interestingly, defensive tackle Julian Taylor, who was said to be ready and able to play fullback, is inactive. He was active for the first two games, but has not been for the last two.
While taking Kittle out of the passing game may look like a high price to pay, the 49ers will have other options against a banged-up Rams team missing two of its biggest defensive playmakers.
Marquise Goodwin — arguably the fastest receiver on the roster — didn’t practice on Friday for personal reasons, but he is active, as is running back Jeff Wilson Jr., giving Kyle Shanahan four backs to use against a defense that won’t have cornerback Aqib Talib as well as linebacker Clay Matthews.
Shanahan likes to bring his running backs into the passing game, and given the fact that San Francisco owns the top rushing attack in the league, he could easily divide the attention of one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL, somewhat hiding the fact that he’s playing with two backup tackles in Daniel Brunskill (playing for injured Mike McGlinchey on the right) and rookie Justin Skule (playing for injured Joe Staley on the left).
That could give Garoppolo some more time, meaning that Goodwin and Dante Pettis — who hasn’t yet had a breakout game this season — could be due. San Francisco is third in the league in rushing attempts per game (38.5) and 30th in passing attempts per game (28.5). Sunday might be the day that flips.
San Francisco inactives:
QB C.J. Beathard
CB Ahkello Witherspoon (he was seen going through warmups, so could be back soon from a foot ailment)
FB Kyle Juszczyk (knee)
RT Mike McGlinchey (knee)
LT Joe Staley (leg)
DL Julian Taylor
WR Jordan Matthews
Los Angeles inactives:
CB Aqib Talib
CB David Long Jr.
RB Todd Gurley
LB Clay Matthews
C Coleman Shelton
OT Bobby Evans
DT Tanzel Smart