McDonald: Kittle put 49ers on his back to avoid collapse in Cincinnati. How long can he keep it up?

McDonald: Kittle put 49ers on his back to avoid collapse in Cincinnati. How long can he keep it up?

The 49ers are going as far as George Kittle can take them.

Maybe that’s not the ideal setup for extended success in 2021, but it was a sight to behold Sunday as the 49ers beat the host Cincinnati Bengals 26-23 in overtime.

Kittle, who is playing tight end at a level perhaps never seen before in the NFL, caught 13 passes for 151 yards. If anything, the numbers don’t do him justice.

Only two passes thrown in his direction by grateful quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo were incomplete, and on one of them a defender had one of Kittle’s arms pinned to his side, no flag was thrown and Kittle nearly made a one-handed downfield grab along the sideline.

The end came when wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk made a superlative effort to get the ball over the pylon on a 12-yard pass from Garoppolo, and the 49ers had salvaged a game that appeared to be won, then lost, then maybe even tied.

Garoppolo (27 of 41, 296 yards, two touchdowns) calmly led the 49ers for the winning points after the Bengals had taken a 23-20 lead in overtime by Evan McPherson. Much of the heavy lifting was done by Kittle. He caught three passes for 38 yards on the game-winning, 75-yard drive.

First, Kittle set the tone with an 8-yard catch on the first play. Later was a 21-yard grab from Garoppolo against Vonn Bell to the Cincinnati 26.

On third-and-5 from the 21, Kittle went low for a 9-yard gain to the 12. That set up Aiyuk’s game-winner.

“I was not expecting to get that ball,” Kittle said. “But Jimmy put it in there and I did a baseball slide. To run that route, and have it right there, I said, `Thanks, Jimmy. Appreciate it.’ “

Coming off the heels of a nine-catch, 181-yard performance in last week’s loss to Seattle, Kyle Shanahan said Kittle was “huge” but it almost seemed as if the coach was taking what Kittle did for granted. Either that, or Kittle is held in such regard such things are expected from him at this point.

“In the pass game, he’s about as explosive a talent as there is,” Shanahan said.

Kittle has 57 receptions for 657 yards and a career-high six touchdowns and has missed two games.

The appealing thing about Kittle is he’s always looking to dish off credit. He bailed out Garoppolo on a few plays, bending his body like a contortionist (no wonder he was wearing a Spider-Man shirt following the game) and extended with surprising jumping ability to bring in passes that appeared to be sailing incomplete.

“That’s a different dude,” Aiyuk said. “Huge third-down plays, just made plays all over the field.”

Kittle’s most amazing catch set up a potential game-winning 47-yard field goal attempt that Robbie Gould pushed right at the end of regulation. It was a leaping, elongated snag of a third-down corner route for a 19-yard gain to the Cincinnati 29.

Then of course there is Kittle’s blocking, which he takes every bit as seriously as his receiving skills. He pretty much shrugged off the last two games (22 receptions, 332 yards, three touchdowns) as anything out of the ordinary.

“Coach Shanahan is calling my name, and Jimmy’s throwing me the football,” Kittle said. “That’s all it is. I had only one catch for 13 yards against Minnesota when we ran the ball. I’m glad I was able to make the plays when they called my name.”

Kittle is Garoppolo’s safety blanket, the one he looks for when times are toughest.

“George showed out today, he really did,” Garoppolo said. “When you have a guy like that you can lean on, as a quarterback it’s a nice feeling.”

With the 49ers at 7-6 and solidly in the No. 6 slot in the wild-card race, no one is too concerned about the manner in which they get there with four games to go.

But in the long run, it’s generally not a great sign when a tight end is your primary mover. And as good as Deebo Samuel has been for the 49ers as a runner/receiver, it’s Kittle that is the beating heart of the 49ers offense and the person who helps lift Garoppolo in terms of performance when the quarterback is struggling.

As great as Kittle is, teams don’t generally win Super Bowls with a tight end as the No. 1 option. And there’s also the matter of Kittle holding up physically. It wasn’t that long ago that Kittle, because of various injuries, hadn’t scored in a calendar year. He missed two games because of an ankle injury that was related to his Achilles.

He left the game on a couple of occasions late against Cincinnati and at one point had a compression sleeve on the injured ankle.

“When you have catches and get tackled, you get sore,” Kittle said. “Nothing to worry about.”

That is certainly the hope of Shanahan and the training staff.

“Kittle just goes until he can’t,” Shanahan said. “You could tell in the last drive in the fourth quarter it started acting up more, and he came back and caught the corner route to get us into field goal range and then was big in overtime. Hopefully he’s all right and we’ll know tomorrow.”

Kittle was so good it overshadowed some 49ers flaws in a game they appeared to have won with a 20-6 lead in the fourth quarter, only to end up having to pull it out in overtime.

The running game was contained for the second week in a row and Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow was able to riddle a 49ers secondary short on corners.

You can expect issues to crop up in those areas as well as others over the next four weeks and then perhaps in a playoff game or two.

The good news is that health permitting, Kittle will be there too, and it’s always worth looking forward to what he’ll do next.

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