San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle sustained a significant shoulder injury in Week 1 of the NFL Preseason. Will head coach Kyle Shanahan use fullback Kyle Juszczyk to help replace the production of the Niners’ top TE?
Thursday’s Preseason Week 1 matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys was a game riddled with injuries. Initially, the most serious injury appeared to be the separated shoulder of second-year tight end George Kittle:
This potential injury to George Kittle is the most concerning news of the night for the 49erspic.twitter.com/rOjf9TtTRV
— Kevin Jones (@Mr_KevinJones) August 10, 2018
Luckily, the 49ers appear to have dodged a bullet, as both NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Kittle avoided any structural damage, and isn’t in danger of missing a considerable portion of the upcoming season.
Still, Kittle’s questionable availability over the first few weeks of the 2018 NFL regular season is a substantial blow to the 49ers’ offense, considering the tight end’s historic rookie year in 2017:
— Chris Wilson (@cgawilson) January 2, 2018
The saving grace for San Francisco comes in the form of their head coach — and unofficial offensive coordinator — Kyle Shanahan.
Many NFL coaches attempt to fit square pegs into round holes, and usually fail in the endeavor. However, Shanahan is one of the league’s brightest young offensive minds because of his ability — and willingness — to significantly adapt his offensive system to fit his personnel, while maintaining the underlying philosophies and principles that make his offenses successful.
One of Shanahan’s key offensive strategies is attacking defenses and creating mismatches by passing the ball out of heavy personnel, which I discussed extensively in a 2017 article for 49ers Webzone. Shanahan did this with great success in 2016, which resulted in an Atlanta Falcons offense that led the NFL in total points scored, points per drive, yards per play and Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
In the article, I noted that Shanahan’s Falcons used 13 personnel more than just two other teams, but they didn’t use heavy sets to merely run the ball. Instead, Shanahan threw out of 13 personnel at the NFL’s highest rate; in fact the 2016 Falcons threw out of 13 personnel more than half of NFL teams combined.
When Shanahan arrived in San Francisco, he drafted a future starting tight end in Kittle, and signed veteran TE Logan Paulsen, who played for Shanahan during their shared time with the Washington Redskins. While Paulsen was primarily a blocking specialist over the majority of his career, Shanahan used him as a receiver in Washington. The tight end recorded 25 receptions for 308 yards in 2012 and 28 catches for 267 yards and three scores in 2013.
However, Shanahan quickly learned that at the age of 30, and after missing the entire 2015 season due to a foot injury, Paulsen was no longer the receiving threat he once was in Washington. Last season, Shanahan did use Paulsen — the tight end logged nearly 300 total snaps on offense and special teams over 16 games — but not in the 49ers’ passing game, as the veteran finished the year without a single reception.
Lacking a third receiving tight end, what did Shanahan do? He essentially removed the 13 personnel package from his offensive playbook.
A year after utilizing 13 personnel more than just two other teams, Shanahan’s 49ers used 13 personnel less than just two other teams in 2017. Shanahan no longer threw the ball out of 13 personnel at the highest rate in the league; last season, the 49ers threw out of 13 personnel at the second lowest rate in the NFL.
Instead, Shanahan turned to his new “Offensive Weapon” — fullback Kyle Juszczyk — to shoulder the receiving load that the team’s third tight end was unable to handle. Shanahan was already a huge proponent of 21 personnel, with his Falcons using it at the second highest rate in the league, but in 2017, Shanahan turned his use of 21 personnel up a notch — particularly in the 49ers’ passing game.
Over the past two seasons, NFL teams utilized 21 personnel on just seven percent of all offensive plays, and passed the ball on only 40 percent of those plays. On average, NFL teams passed out of 21 personnel 29 times each season — if you remove Shanahan’s teams from the equation, the number drops to 26 pass attempts per season.
In 2016, Shanahan’s Falcons used 21 personnel on 26 percent of their offensive plays, and passed the ball on 42 percent of those plays, totaling 109 total pass attempts.
In 2017, Shanahan’s 49ers used 21 personnel on 28 percent of their offensive plays, and passed the ball on 46 percent of those plays, totaling 136 total pass attempts.
Adding to the discrepancy, those 136 pass attempts took place in just 14 games, as the 49ers used 21 personnel just twice — and ran the ball on both plays — during Juszczyk’s two-game injury absence. In Juszczyk’s 14 games last season, the 49ers utilized 21 personnel on 32 percent of their offensive plays.
While Shanahan used 21 personnel at a high rate in both seasons, he ran it a lot more in San Francisco. And while the number of Shanahan’s rushing attempts from 21 personnel was nearly identical between the two years, he threw the ball out of 21 personnel 25 percent more in 2017 — in two fewer games — than he did in all of 2016.
Also, Shanahan’s 2016 passing statistics from 21 personnel were somewhat skewed since he often used both of his pass-catching halfbacks — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman — on the field at the same time:
Shanahan didn’t have that luxury in San Francisco with halfbacks Carlos Hyde — arguably the NFL’s worst receiving and pass-blocking running back last season — and Matt Breida, a viable receiving option, but one of the poorest pass blockers at his position during his rookie year. Instead, the 49ers played Juszczyk — who topped all Niner running backs with a 79 percent catch rate and 9.5 yards per reception — when the team used two-back sets.
Although the 2016 Falcons passed frequently out of 21 personnel, they rarely threw the ball to fullback Patrick DiMarco, who caught just seven passes over 16 games. Historically, Shanahan’s offenses threw to the fullback most often out of I-Formation; in recent seasons, Shanahan began attacking defenses by lining his fullback up at a variety of positions on the field, which I broke down in an article for Niner Noise last offseason.
It’s no secret that Shanahan and 49ers general manager John Lynch targeted Juszczyk in free agency because of his versatility — but once the 49ers’ coaching staff realized the team lacked a third pass-catching threat at tight end, Juszczyk was truly used as the “OW” — or “Offensive Weapon” — Lynch claimed the fullback would become.
Juszczyk’s ability to produce in both the running game and the passing game allowed Shanahan to keep his Offensive Weapon on the field at an extremely high rate, particularly for a fullback in today’s NFL; in his 14 games played last season, Juszczyk was on the field for over 40 percent of the 49ers’ offensive snaps.
Juszczyk lined up all over the field for the 49ers, including on the line of scrimmage as a tight end, split out in the slot, motioned far to the outside and as an offset fullback of H-back in pistol formations. “Juice” also caught his fair share of passes when lined up as a traditional fullback, and was often targeted on misdirection plays, as well as routes in the flat when covered by a slower linebacker:
With George Kittle already ruled out for the remainder of the preseason, his status for Week 1 of the regular season is in question. If the San Francisco 49ers are forced to begin the 2018 NFL season without their top TE, look for tight ends Garrett Celek and Cole Hikutini to split time at the position — and for Offensive Weapon Kyle Juszczyk to play a more prominent role in Kyle Shanahan’s passing attack.
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