SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Diving for the goal line late in the second quarter, 49ers tight end Ross Dwelley appeared to have scored his second touchdown of the game, bringing the 49ers within two points of the Arizona Cardinals just before half time.
As he popped up to his feet to celebrate with his teammates, Dwelley saw a yellow penalty flag on the ground near the line of scrimmage. San Francisco center Weston Richburg had been called for a hold, nullifying the play. “Now I know how George [Kittle] feels,” Dwelley said. Kittle, too, has had touchdowns called back this season, but he’s also been the 49ers’ best receiving weapon.
Stepping in for Kittle, who has missed San Francisco’s last two games with knee and ankle injuries, Dwelley proved an invaluable asset for San Francisco in a 36-26 win over Arizona at Levi’s Stadium. With two touchdowns on four receptions, the University of San Diego product proved to be an asset for the NFC frontrunners.
“Ross is such a f***ing monster,” Kittle said after the game. “He’s such a monster and I’m so proud.”
The 49ers have been forced to ask a lot from Dwelley this season, who joined came to San Francisco in 2018 as an undrafted free agent.
Serving as a backup tight end, Dwelley was suddenly thrust into a role as a starting fullback after Kyle Juszczyk suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5.
San Francisco produced three games of over 100 yards rushing, including a 232-yard outburst against the Carolina Panthers where Dwelley set lead blocks for Tevin Coleman, who tallied 103 yards and three touchdowns.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to him,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “Dude’s had a lot on his plate for the last however many weeks just with guys being down. And he doesn’t even hesitate.”
On Sunday, the 49ers needed something new from Dwelley. As Kittle sat in the team’s suite eight floors above the field, unable to play with a compromised left leg, Dwelley became San Francisco’s starting tight end.
While the 49ers offense came out very sluggish to begin the game, mustering only 11 total yards of offense in the first quarter, a 57-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Richie James Jr. set up San Francisco in the red zone for the first time of the afternoon.
Three plays later on third-and-goal, Dwelley slipped through the Cardinals defense and broke for the back left corner of the end zone. Without an Arizona defender in sight, Dwelley caught his first career touchdown pass.
“It was a great play design by coach [Kyle] Shanahan and Jimmy found me, which was nice,”Dwelley said.
On his second touchdown of the night, Dwelley was the beneficiary of another brilliant play design by Shanahan. Using a trio of slants from his receivers and a decoy out-route from Coleman, Shanahan schemed Dwelley wide open at the goal line, and he slipped his block before running a shallow slant in the opposite direction.
In Dwelley’s eyes, while scoring two touchdowns was nice, he should have had a hat-trick.
“George has had like three touchdowns called back,” Dwelley said. “It definitely sucks, especially when I went all-out on the celebration and then to see the flag, I was pretty gassed the next few plays.”
Ironically, Kittle said he had a touchdown of his own called back on the same play design against the Carolina Panthers.
“It was the exact same play,” Kittle said. “So that’s tough but I think [Dwelley] played absolutely great … Just kind of find the sweet spots and run with it. I think Ross did such a great job with that.”
Without a timetable for Kittle’s return, San Francisco will certainly be in need of Dwelley’s versatile play-making abilities as it hits the toughest stretch of its season, facing the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints — all 8-2 through Week 11.
“He was unbelievable stepping up, taking over for [Juszczy] when [he] was out and he’s been great stepping up for Kittle,” Shanahan said. “Ross has been one of the better football players on our team this year … He’s as good of a football player as we’ve got going right now.”