Yes, we know that this game took place over a week ago now. Northwestern is a *very* taxing school, as many of you well know, so it’s impossible for get everything done by the exact deadline we want it to be done by. Regardless, this is an in-depth breakdown on one of Northwestern’s most important and well-thought of players, and one that is super relevant should the stud safety return to Evanston in 2022. Enjoy!
At this point in the year, there’s little reason to watch Northwestern football besides projecting toward next season (join me, fellow sickos!). For example, how well does Ryan Hilinski play down the stretch as he enters 2022 as the presumptive favorite to start (barring transfers)? How does Bryce Gallagher fare as he looks to fill the shoes of Chris Bergin?
Similarly, it’s key to note how much players are actually improving relative to the beginning of the 2021 campaign. Like many of his colleagues, Brandon Joseph has done little to mitigate issues that are popping up week in and week out.
Joseph still shows plenty of flashes of an All-American-caliber player, but there are also far too many instances of the safety struggling — particularly when defending the run.
Let’s break down how Joseph performed in Madison, Wisconsin two Saturdays ago.
Throughout the frigid afternoon, Joseph showcased his play recognition, tackling ability and range.
One didn’t have to watch the actual game to know that Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen absolutely wreaked havoc against the Wildcats’ defense, posting 173 yards and three scores on just 25 carries. Running with immense physicality yet speed, Northwestern rarely – if ever – brought Allen down on the first try.
Here, Allen employs a sound jump cut and follows his pulling guard to the outside, where there’s nothing but green grass ahead. The only two players that have a chance of halting Allen’s waltz to the end zone are Joseph and A.J. Hampton, and the former gets it done. Joseph does a good job staying with the play, fighting through his blocker and tripping up Allen from behind.
Moreover, when coming downhill from his safety spot, Joseph succeeded in meeting – and stopping – Allen, largely through prudent pursuit angles as well as patience.
On this first down, Joseph creeps down and shows blitz before maneuvering toward the freshman tailback and wrapping him up. This gallop went for nine yards, but it could have been significantly worse if not for Joseph.
Here, Joseph does much of the same, as he moves downhill and implements sound lateral quickness, then cuts on a dime, changes direction and plants Allen in his tracks.
These aforementioned traits culminate in Joseph’s best play of the day. With 9:46 remaining in the second quarter, Joseph immediately recognizes the inside zone, bursting ahead while deftly avoiding oncoming traffic and throwing Allen down. This is a snap that should have NFL scouts buzzing.
Furthermore, one of the premier attributes of the Texas native is his range.
On the first play, Joseph covers a tremendous amount of ground to converge on Allen with Blake Gallagher.
Wisconsin rarely threw the ball – and scarcely targeted Joseph – but here, the Northwestern safety makes Graham Mertz pay. Joseph intently watches Mertz’s eyes, breaks on the ball in the back corner of the end zone and collects the interception, his third of the year, and his third career pick against the Badgers’ QB.
Overall, I think it can be easy to dismiss Joseph’s good plays because of the lack of talent around him. Fans may think, Wisconsin ran the ball for 268 yards, and Graham Mertz had just five incompletions, so Joseph isn’t doing anything! In reality, Joseph has generally played his part in spite of a defensive line that gets no push, defenders that cannot shed blocks and a secondary whose physicality is nowhere near the same without Greg Newsome.
But now ...
At times, Joseph will look like his 2020 self. Other instances, not so much.
When watching Northwestern play Michigan State, it was apparent that Jim O’Neil’s defense took very poor angles in the run game and did not aptly fill blocks – Joseph being part of the problem. Nine games later, this still remains a concern for B-Joe.
On this first-quarter tote, Cam Mitchell gets walked back by his receiver and cannot get outside, though he should be the initial defender to set the edge. Despite having little assistance, Joseph struggles to get around Mitchell and is late in recognizing that Allen has broken outside, getting loose for a gain of 13.
Later on, Joseph’s poor pursuit reared its ugly head yet again.
On this carry, the entire right side of the field is wholly congested, as Allen shrewdly cuts it back to the left, breaks a Chase McLaughlin tackle and is off to the races. A major reason why Allen was able to gain nine yards was that Joseph was sucked up with the rest of Northwestern’s defense – the sophomore should have dashed to the left as insurance but instead played rather timidly.
Speaking of being afraid, Joseph might have had good reason to be so – on several occasions, he was absolutely manhandled by Allen.
In this first example, Joseph tries to come up and stop Allen, but the freshman shrugs him off, bulldozing his way forward.
In the second, Joseph, like the several defenders before him, gets trucked by Allen as the RB collects his third touchdown of the day. There probably should have been a hold called on the man blocking Jeffery Pooler, Jr., but missing this many tackles doesn’t help your case.
While Joseph sometimes met Allen head-on, he seemed wary to do so in different circumstances. Joseph and Allen sport similar heights, but Allen is nearly 40 pounds heavier and can casually squat over 600 pounds at just 17 – it certainly doesn’t seem fun to try to bring down a battering ram like that.
Take this third-and-2 carry in which Joseph plants his foot in the ground and hesitates, creating a lane for Allen. If Joseph had run straight ahead, he likely would have collided with the Badger ‘back and could have stifled the play earlier.
I haven’t discussed pass coverage much, but this snap was Joseph’s worst of the day. In man against newly minted Senior Bowl attendee Jake Ferguson, the NU safety gets turned around on a quick out and proceeds to miss a tackle on the tight end, resulting in six.
Watching Joseph this year has been emblematic of the rest of Northwestern’s secondary: several brilliant plays interspersed with others that make you shake your head.
To say that 2020 All-American has been bad is an over-exaggeration, but the safety hasn’t made a ton of eye-popping plays, either. In retrospect, I think it’s entirely possible that the sheer number of takeaways that Joseph garnered in 2020 masqueraded his deeper struggles that are now showing up.
Given both his own and Northwestern’s weaknesses this season, I would be surprised if Joseph declares for the 2022 NFL Draft. If he decided to do so, he likely would be a mid-round pick – a far cry from his first-round projection as little as six months ago.
Joseph is still capable of being a bonafide game changer, and he’s shown those tendencies this year. If he can reduce his number of mistakes made — particularly in the run game — the safety can reclaim his spot in the pantheon of best defenders in the nation.