The 49ers got a preview of what things might be like without their Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle late in their recent victory over the Arizona Cardinals. That could be useful against the division rival Seattle Seahawks this week on “Monday Night Football.”
With Kittle checked out of the Arizona game due to knee and ankle injuries, the 49ers needed to get first downs to kill the clock and seal the victory late in the fourth quarter. Naturally, Jimmy Garoppolo looked for Kittle’s replacement, Ross Dwelley, who entered the week with three catches on the year, for minus-1 yard.
“It definitely is a boost in confidence knowing that coach Shanahan is drawing up plays for you and has faith in you — and Jimmy has faith to go to you in that clutch moment,” Dwelley said Friday. “And it definitely, it’s a confidence boost for yourself that you can make that play in that clutch moment at the biggest stage.”
Garoppolo was facing a third-and-9 knowing a final first down after the two-minute warning would end the game. The Cardinals scored on their previous two drives to cut the 14-point deficit to three. San Francisco’s defense was gassed playing on the road on a short week.
Garoppolo escaped the pocket and found Dwelley to his left, who spun off a defender and picked up 11 yards for the game-clinching first down. Dwelley screamed toward the sideline, which erupted knowing the team just became 8-0 thanks to the little-known tight end.
It was Dwelley’s first notable NFL moment since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2018, which could prove a precursor for this week’s pivotal contest against the 7-2 Seahawks. With his four-catch, 29-yard performance, he lifted his yardage total from minus-1 to 28 on the season, twice his output from 2018, when he made just two catches in 11 games.
“Dwelley’s been huge for us this last month,” Shanahan said after the win. “We were messing with Dwelley all week. We said the No. 1 goal in this game was to win, but the No. 2 goal was to improve his yards-per-catch average because we think he was at zero or one.”
Ominous sign about Kittle
Kittle hasn’t practiced during the first two sessions this week. Nor has he been available in the locker room, which hasn’t been the case when he was working through a myriad of injuries over the past two seasons. His absence from the locker room could be more ominous than missing practice.
There’s a significant chance Kittle misses the second game of his career on Monday after an MRI revealed last week he has “two things in both areas,” Kyle Shanahan said, regarding Kittle’s left knee and ankle.
That means Dwelley could be San Francisco’s top tight end in the biggest game of the season. Fortunately for him, the final drive in Arizona, and having to replace fullback Kyle Juszczyk over the past four games, has prepared him in case he has to replace the offense’s most indispensable player in Kittle.
“You gotta have an inner confidence in yourself that you can be that guy for the team. I feel like I have that confidence,” Dwelley said. “It’s just kind of proving to everyone else that you can be that guy.”
Dwelley signed with San Francisco as an undrafted free agent from the University of San Diego, which isn’t exactly a NFL factory. The 49ers were the only team that gave him a private workout. It was spearheaded by position coach Jon Embree, who found something he liked when looking at Dwelley’s college tape. Dwelley made enough of an impression to stick around on the practice squad at the start of the season.
He was promoted to the active roster the day of Oct. 2018’s Monday night game against the Green Bay Packers. Embree told him beforehand it was a possibility, which led to increased practice reps two days prior.
“That kind was like, ‘Woo, let’s go,’” said Dwelley. “I guess I’ve been doing something good on the P-squad.”
Dwelley has been on the roster ever since. He spent the offseason mimicking Kittle’s renowned offseason workout plan which led to increasing his speed and strength. A second season in Shanahan’s offense led to improved route running and pass catching, which was evident throughout training camp when Dwelley gave himself a stranglehold on the No. 2 tight end job.
The 49ers placed Dwelley’s locker right next to Kittle’s, which is unique in San Francisco’s locker room inside Levi’s Stadium. Since Shanahan and John Lynch were hired, locker assignments have been mostly random, placing receivers next to defensive linemen and linebackers next to running backs, for example.
Dwelley and Kittle are one of the few pairings who play the same position with lockers immediately next to each other. It’s reasonable to assume that was on purpose to allow Kittle to rub off on Dwelley.
“Once I made the practice squad, I just walked in one day and my locker was right here,” Dwelley said. “And I was like, hey, that works for me.”
Ahkello Witherspoon, Levine Toilolo return to practice
The 49ers had two players return to practice Friday, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (foot/quadriceps) and tight end Levine Toilolo (groin) after missing Thursday’s session. It marked the first time Witherspoon had practiced since spraining his foot Sept. 22 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Toilolo has been dealing with his groin injury going on three weeks and has played just 26 snaps combined over the last two games.
With George Kittle’s status uncertain, Toilolo’s availability could be important for Monday night, particularly as a blocker for the running game. There’s a chance the 49ers only have two tight ends available, Toilolo and Dwelley, which could mean having six receivers active for the first time all season. Marquise Goodwin was a healthy scratch for the last game in Arizona following the addition of Emmanuel Sanders.
▪ Kicker Robbie Gould missed practice for the second straight day after sustaining a quadriceps injury during Tuesday’s bonus session. The 49ers signed rookie Chase McLaughlin in the event Gould can’t play Monday..
▪ For the Seahawks, offensive tackle Duane Brown (biceps, knee) and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (toe, knee) missed practice Friday for the second straight day.