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Film Room: Putting Isaiah Pola-Mao in the box

Diving into the safety’s potential role

Los Angeles Chargers v Las Vegas Raiders
Isaiah Pola-Mao
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

During the early stages of the Las Vegas Raiders training camp, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Vincent Bonsignore tweeted that second-year safety Isaiah Pola-Mao looks noticeably bigger and has been one of the initial standouts on the field. Pola-Mao’s added size is likely due to how the coaching staff is looking to use him this season.

During the 2022 preseason, Pola-Mao primarily lined up as a free safety, taking 86 snaps at that spot compared to just 35 in the box, per Pro Football Focus. However, that ratio flipped once the games started counting as he took more than three times as many reps in the box versus on the back end of the defense.

Granted, the latter is a pretty small sample size but that combined with the former USC Trojan adding weight is a pretty good indication of how Las Vegas plans to use him this year.

So, let’s flip on the tape from last season and see what gives the coaching staff optimism that Pola-Mao can play in the box, and where he can grow in that role.

We’ll start with a nice rep as a pass rusher. The Raiders liked to put Pola-Mao on the line of scrimmage in these double-mug looks on third downs last year. With Tre’von Moehrig reading the tight end and Maxx Crosby dropping in coverage, the offensive tackle has time to chip Pola-Mao before Moehrig blitzes.

That should be enough to slow down Pola-Mao’s momentum, however, he does a great job of fighting through contact and keeps his feet moving the entire time to bullrush the running back. As a result, he wins at the point of attack against the back and is able to get a sack as Chandler Jones forces Justin Herbert to step up in the pocket.

This is a pretty impressive rep for someone who was listed at 205 pounds last season.

Okay, so I know this next clip isn’t in the box as Pola-Mao is near the boundary as a wide corner. But he’s out there to cover the running back who is split out wide like a linebacker would be and this rep highlights what he can do in underneath coverage.

Las Vegas is playing zone coverage and Pola-Mao reads Herbert’s eyes to break on the receiver running the short curl route. Then, his defensive back skills kick in as he closes on the receiver and makes contact right as the ball gets there to eliminate any yards after the catch and set up a third and medium situation.

Pola-Mao’s ability to anticipate throws and break on routes are a couple of his biggest strengths in coverage and stand out on tape.

We’ll transition to a couple of clips where adding some extra weight will help the USC product.

Here, the Chargers run a screen and he fits to the correct side of the offensive linemen, maintaining outside leverage to force the ball inside to his help. However, he concedes too much ground and ends up giving up the first down by making the tackle past the sticks. Also, Pola-Mao can do a better job of recognizing the screen and getting his base set a little faster to help hold his ground. A similar play happened against the Rams, too.

For those curious, the fumble was caused by Duron Harmon.

The play above highlights how size can help Pola-Mao in coverage against tight ends. He maintains his leverage and uses his hands well, but Tyler Higbee is able to out-muscle him a bit at the top of the route to create a step of separation. Had Baker Mayfield thrown to Higbee out of the break, this would have been a first down or at least set up third and short.

The good news is this is a technically sound rep, Pola-Mao just needs a little more weight to fight back against a physical route-runner.

We’ll end on a high note where Pola-Mao does a great job of taking on a block from an offensive lineman and making a play against the run.

He’s lined up on the line of scrimmage again and initially drops in coverage but redirects and gets his base set before contact this time. Then, he shows color to the inside of the puller and that gets the running back to bounce it outside.

Pola-Mao caps the rep off by understanding how he’s built and using his agility to cross the offensive lineman’s face and make the tackle. Also, notice how his wide base helps him absorb contact and avoid losing ground.

This is a very encouraging rep for his ability to play in the box and hopefully, one he continues to build on this season.