Before we dive into this week’s matchup to watch, we must first include this disclaimer: Football is, more often than not, not a defender A vs. offensive player X game.
There are matchups to exploit, sure. But it’s usually more complicated and formation-dependent than a simple matchup.
There will, however, be times Monday night when rookie linebacker Mack Wilson is depended upon to cover 49ers tight end George Kittle. In case you haven’t heard, Kittle is a fan of pro wrestling and also quite good at his job. The tight end caught 43 passes for 515 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie but was also competing for targets with Vance McDonald, who was shipped out to Pittsburgh last season. That cleared the way for Kittle to explode.
In his second year, Kittle caught 88 receptions (on an astounding 136 targets) for 1,377 receiving yards and five touchdowns. At times, he almost singlehandedly kept San Francisco’s passing offense afloat in the aftermath of a season-ending knee injury to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Kittle’s seven-catch, 210-yard, one-score performance against Denver in Week 13 of 2018 still stands as his best game to date and one of the most memorable performances from a tight end in the last half decade.
It helps that he plays in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which has a reputation for finding ways to weaponize the tight end, but make no mistake: Kittle is a premier athlete with an incredibly bright future ahead of him.
One might say the same about Wilson, who is starting to look like a diamond the Browns unearthed from the fifth-round rough in the 2019 draft. He’s taken over for injured veteran Christian Kirksey and hasn’t missed a beat for the most part through two weeks. He’ll face quite a task when he matches up with Kittle.
“He gets open a bunch,” head coach Freddie Kitchens said of Kittle. “It seems like he is always finding windows. He is a great zone guy, and then he can beat you athletically, too. He has been very successful up to this point this year. Anytime you have a guy that can find open windows in zone and kind of has a knack for it, they present a lot of problems.”
While Kittle is a fantasy darling and currently owns the highest Pro Football Focus individual grade in the NFL at 92.7, he’s entering a matchup that might be tougher for him than usual. Wilson has shown in his limited NFL snaps to be a natural pass defender with a nose for the ball. He was inches from an interception in the Browns’ loss to the Rams after he put together quite a stretch of takeaways during training camp and the preseason. He figures to get his best chance at some Monday.
There’s also a factor that has more empirical evidence to back it. Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who has devised excellent game plans all season long and especially in the last two weeks, has a history of relative success against Kittle.
In his lone season as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals — an NFC West rival of the 49ers — Wilks’ defense held Kittle to final stat lines of five catches for 83 yards and five catches for 57 yards. Kittle didn’t score in either game.
“In my opinion, I think he is one of the best in the league,” Wilks said of Kittle on Friday. “He does so much from a standpoint of they put him out at the slot and they put him out at No. 1. Very athletic. Does a great job with YAC after the catch. He does a tremendous job making guys miss out in space and can take the top off. It is very difficult because he poses the elements just like a receiver once you put him out in space.”
In Cleveland, Wilks is armed with an improved personnel group at all three levels of the defense, and the results have been predictably better. Through four games, the Browns have allowed 14 receptions (21 targets) to tight ends for 147 total yards and three scores. If one removes Delanie Walker’s gaudy second-half numbers (during a Week 1 game that spiraled completely out of control in the final quarter) from that total, it falls to nine receptions for 92 yards and one touchdown.
While Gerald Everett put together a career game Thursday night against Seattle, the Browns held him to two receptions for 15 yards in Week 3. Most notably, the Browns limited Baltimore’s tight end combination of Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews to six receptions (10 targets) for 70 yards and one touchdown.
Check out photos of the Browns against the Ravens
Wilson learned firsthand last week how it feels to go against a quality tight end. He almost allowed it to burn him.
“They motioned the No. 1 receiver to my left, and I’m thinking ‘OK, I’m one-on-one backside by myself. I know they’re about to go to him,’” Wilson said of a key fourth down in which Lamar Jackson targeted Andrews. “That’s probably Lamar’s favorite target. I know they’re about to throw to him.
“So as he released, I’m looking at his hips and I see him break out and in my first mind, I’m like, it’s fourth down, like fourth-and-6, and I’m like ‘he’s gotta be running the out route.’ So I anticipated him running the out route, that’s why I was so aggressive. When he kinda turned up, I was like (expletive). I honestly thought I was about to give up a touchdown.”
Wilson didn’t, though, as Jackson threw the out while Andrews ran an out-and-up. It ended in an incompletion and a turnover on downs that proved to be significant.
Wilson knows he can’t make a similar mistake against a player like Kittle. We’ll see how it plays out on Monday night.