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Film room: Isaiah Pola-Mao pounces on big opportunity in Miami

Safety was thrust into action and put together a great performance

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Miami Dolphins
Isaiah Pola-Mao
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into Week 11, the most defensive snaps second-year safety Isaiah Pola-Mao had received in a single game during his short career was 21. However, after Las Vegas Raiders safety Marcus Epps suffered an injury against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Pola-Mao received the most playing time of his career—54 snaps—and made the most of the opportunity.

The USC product tied for fourth on the team with seven total tackles and was second behind Maxx Crosby with an 84.3 PFF defense grade. A big reason for the latter is that Pola-Mao was targeted three times but only allowed one completion for 12 yards and recorded the first interception of his career.

So, as is customary, let’s flip on the tape and break down the second-year pro’s big day.

It’s fourth and one in the second quarter and the Dolphins opt to go for it with an RPO where they’re running a screen to Tyreek Hill to the wide side of the field. With the Raiders in man coverage, Pola-Mao lines up over the slot in press coverage.

Miami motions Hill to set up the other receiver's block and create space toward the sideline. What they’re hoping for is the slot receiver blocks Nate Hobbs and then Pola-Mao either over-pursues or stays too far inside so that Hill can either cut inside to score or beat the safety to the front pylon.

However, Hobbs does a great job of reading the screen and crashing downhill to make the first contact on Hill, and Pola-Mao comes in to clean it up and finish the job. Hobbs definitely deserves more credit on this play but it is good teamwork from two guys who don’t normally get a lot of reps with each other.

Here we’ll get a look at Pola-Mao’s interception.

The Raiders give a two-high safety look pre-snap but roll into Cover 3 post-snap where Pola-Mao is going to be the deep safety. He works for depth initially which is a smart decision seeing as the Dolphins have speedy wideout Jaylen Waddle running a deep route and Pola-Mao knows that he has to keep everything in front of him as the last line of defense.

Waddle flattens his route toward the opposite sideline, like a dig route, since he sees Las Vegas is in single-high. However, Tua Tagovailoa appears to be stuck on his pre-snap read and ends up throwing the post as if there were two safeties. So, the ball is well overthrown and Pola-Mao gets rewarded for doing his job by playing center field and coming down with the pick.

Tips and overthrows are how safeties make their money and the second-year pro cashed in here.

Unfortunately, the play above goes down as a completion and a first down, but I wanted to include it because there are still a few positive takeaways from Pola-Mao.

Las Vegas is running Cover 4 and Miami motions a receiver across the formation, testing the defense’s communication as that changes which receiver the corner and safety are reading post-snap. But Hobbs and Pola-Mao are on the same page as Hobbs takes the wideout in motion working up the sideline and Pola-Mao drives on the dig route from the slot.

The safety times up his hit perfectly to make contact with the receiver right as the ball gets there and wraps up for a great form tackle. If he can add some weight in the offseason to have a little more force on the hit, that’ll help jar the ball loose in the future but this is a nice catch from the receiver.

Also, the form tackle is good to see as it takes away any yards after the catch. That’s something Pola-Mao did an excellent job of in this game as he had zero missed tackles.

Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that Divine Deablo can do a better job of helping the safety by staying deep in his zone and rallying to the checkdown instead of taking the cheese and crashing on the back out of the backfield.

Hill was killing the Raiders on dig routes throughout the game and he runs another one here off of a play-action fake. The linebackers come downhill like the Dolphins wanted, freeing up the space for Tagovailoa to hit around the 25-yard-line. However, Pola-Mao reads the route and drives on it so Tagovailoa pulls the ball down and overthrows his check down, creating a third-and-long situation.

This is far from a highlight play but a nice read by Pola-Mao to help take away the Dolphins’ most dangerous receiver.

Here, we get another example of Pola-Mao helping defend against Hill.

Las Vegas rolls to Cover 3 when Hill motions across the formation, which puts Pola-Mao into the curl-to-flat area on the short side of the field. The defensive back gets to his spot and continues working for depth to help defend against a curl or comeback route from the receiver.

Hill is able to beat the cornerback, Hobbs, so Tagovailoa lets it rip but because Pola-Mao continued working for depth, he forces the quarterback to throw it over his long 6’4” frame and the ball sails out of bounds where Hill can’t complete the catch. That sets up another third-and-long situation and keeps the Raiders in the game late in the fourth quarter.