SANTA CLARA –There was a time when most of George Kittle’s highlights included clips of him steamrolling defensive backs and dragging linebackers as he fought for extra yards.
There was none of that on Sunday night, and yet Kittle found a different way to create his first career three-touchdown game as the 49ers rolled to a 42-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Kittle, who turns 30 on Monday, proved that he can still fly.
All three times he scored, Kittle outpaced the defense with his legs, twice bursting through the seams of the Cowboys’ defense while the other score, which came on a reverse flea-flicker, gave Kittle a chance to race past a cornerback on the sideline.
Three catches, three scores for the first time in his career.
“I saw (former 49ers tight end Vernon Davis) before the game and he told me to score three to tie his record, so I was like, ‘Fine, Vern, I’ll do it,’” Kittle joked afterward.
The happy-go-lucky tight end has been just as eager to block for the NFL’s third-ranked rushing attack as he has been to catch passes, which he hasn’t done much this season.
Last week, Kittle had just one catch for nine yards in the 49ers’ 35-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals. It was his lowest yardage total since 2017.
“I thought I’d have 150 yards and three touchdowns in that game,” Kittle said. “That’s just not the way the game went.”
Kittle entered Sunday’s game against the Cowboys on pace for 629 yards this season, which would be his lowest total since his rookie year.
But quarterback Brock Purdy has cautioned that there’s no need for anybody on the 49ers’ offense to worry. There are so many weapons that he can’t feed all of them at once.
“Everyone has their big games,” he said this week.
Kittle finally had his.
“It was just a matter of time,” Purdy said.
All week in practice, Kittle started to get the sense that maybe this week would be his chance.
On the 49ers’ first drive of Sunday’s game, they ran his favorite red zone play, one where Kittle pierces the seams of the secondary with a deep post route. He beat both safeties and found himself wide open. Purdy tossed him a dime for Kittle’s first touchdown of the season.
His second touchdown came with a bit of trickery.
Earlier on Sunday, Kittle was sitting on his couch at home when he saw the Detroit Lions run a reverse flea-flicker that resulted in tight end Sam LaPorta hauling in an easy score.
Razzle dazzle for the @Lions touchdown!
Sam LaPorta’s second of the day
— NFL (@NFL) October 8, 2023
Kittle texted 49ers tight ends coach Brian Fleury and said, “Dude, they ran our play, how did they know?”
Fleury texted back: “Don’t worry, we’ll run it better.”
The 49ers made it look easy: Purdy handed off to Christian McCaffrey, who ran to his right and flipped it to Deebo Samual, who sprinted back the other way and tossed it to Purdy.
As Purdy regained possession, Kittle was released from his blocking assignment and started racing down the sideline. He found separation from the cornerback, Purdy let it fly and Kittle soared into the end zone.
“We ran that play on Wednesday in a walkthrough, same on Friday and Saturday,” Kittle said. “Whenever you run something three times it means you’ll probably run it in the game.”
PURDY TO KITTLE AGAIN ON THE TRICKERY
— NFL (@NFL) October 9, 2023
His third score came on a play he said the 49ers stole from the New England Patriots, who used it against the Cowboys last week. It was a play-action pass to the weak side. Two tight ends and the fullback all ran toward the sideline, then cut back to the middle of the field at three different levels. Kittle beat his man easily and Purdy found him again.
After Kittle hauled in his third score, he looked into the cameras and counted on his fingers: one, two, three.
“I had a feeling George was going to have a big game,” said fullback Kyle Juszczyk. “He hadn’t been in the end zone yet. I knew when it happened, it was going to happen in bunches.”
Brandon Ayuk said he calls Kittle “Prime Time George” for his tendency to show up in big games.
Sunday Night Football is Kittle’s favorite stage, he said. He loves having all eyes on him.
And even if he isn’t dragging defenders into the end zone as he did in 2018, when he led the NFL in yards after the catch per reception, he proved on Sunday that he hasn’t lost his speed.
“Every week he impresses me,” McCaffrey said. “You look at what he can do with the ball in his hands. But you look at what he does in the run game, how well he blocks, his attitude, his character.
“If you play with him, you’re really lucky.”