How Kittle, Sanders’ absences impact 49ers
SANTA CLARA — The 8-1 San Francisco 49ers haven’t had their two most important weapons in the passing game during the first two practices of the week ahead of Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals.
However, if there’s a sliver of good news to take away from Thursday, it’s receiver Emmanuel Sanders was on hand for the early walk through portion of practice as he continues to deal with a rib cartilage injury.
Star tight end George Kittle, who continues to work back from left knee and ankle injuries, was nowhere to be seen and is unlikely to play for the second straight week. He made his first cameo since the injury during the open locker room period Wednesday but declined to speak with reporters until he resumed practicing. Sanders appears more likely to play against Arizona than Kittle.
How vital are those two to the 49ers’ offense?
Monday night’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks offers proof.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after Sanders left the game in the second quarter completed just 14 of 31 for 133 yards with an interception for a passer rating of 44.2, down drastically from his 100.6 mark in the season’s first eight games.
San Francisco’s only offensive touchdown came on its second possession, which included a first-down catch from Sanders that set things up at Seattle’s 12yard line three plays before
Kendrick Bourne’s 10-yard touchdown grab. The 49ers had 13 possessions thereafter that resulted in just six points, including the missed field goal in overtime.
Sanders caught 11 of 14 targets during his first two games after being acquired in the trade with the Broncos, including a 112-yard performance on Halloween against the Cardinals in just his second game with the team.
“It was impressive to watch. I hate that he did it against us,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said in a conference call. “Coming in there, taking that volume of offense and then executing at that level. He’s a consummate pro. He’s been doing it at a high level for a long time.”
The drop in effectiveness of the passing offense Monday was stark, with Sanders absent for nearly three quarters and Kittle throughout the entire game. Garoppolo came into the week completing over 70 percent of his throws. His completed just 52 percent Monday while his pass catchers dropped at least six catchable balls, including some from Kendrick Bourne and Dante Pettis in key moments.
Additionally, the team’s 87 rushing yards was the fewest of the season after entering the week with the second-ranked ground game in the league.
It’s no coincidence that dreary performance came with Kittle in a luxury suite high above the field. He’s widely regarded as the best blocking tight end in the NFL.
“George does a lot for us, not just in the stats that you guys see in the yards and everything with catching the ball, but he is as big of a part of our run game as anyone also,” Kyle Shanahan said.
Kittle leads San Francisco in receptions (46), yards (541) and is tied for the team lead with two touchdown receptions. He’s caught 81 percent of the passes thrown his way and has more yards after the catch (281) than anyone else on Shanahan’s offense.
“Anytime you lose your best player, you need guys in both phases to step it up,” Shanahan said. “George, you really miss on those check downs, guys playing zone and a normal guy gets seven yards and George has a chance to go 60 yards. You always miss that a little bit, kind of the explosive play you’re not really expecting (that) he surprises everybody at.”
The 49ers say Shanahan misspoke Wednesday when he told Cardinals reporters during a conference call, “We won’t have George” when talking about his tight ends in a question about the importance of fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Kittle’s hasn’t officially been ruled out, given the high pain tolerance he’s shown during his career. But the team reiterated he’s unlikely to return Sunday.
“It’s impossible to replace a player like George Kittle,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “Not only is he the best at his position, but he’s arguably a top three to five player in this league. When you lose a guy like that, it makes it really difficult to do what you’re comfortable with with him in the game.”
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo avoids defenders while playing the Washington Redskins at FedExField on Oct. 20 in Landover, Md.