3 & Out

3 & Out: 3 Players To Watch Down The Stretch

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FRISCO, Texas – It's time for three quick topics again.

This week, we're focusing on three players.

The second half of the 2020 season is here, and the Cowboys are at a crossroads. Technically they're only a game and a half out of first place in the NFC East with eight games left. They're also 2-6 with an absurd number of injuries/absences at key positions, most notably quarterback with Dak Prescott on season-ending injured reserve and now backup Andy Dalton sidelined in the interim once again: concussion protocol last week and the Reserve/COVID-19 list this week.

Up next this Sunday at AT&T Stadium: the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (7-0) and a defense that's allowing the fourth-fewest points in the league (142).

What else you got, 2020?

(Don't answer that.)

This is Year 1 of head coach Mike McCarthy's tenure. He's trying build a winning culture for his program. It starts with continuing to compete through this adversity, daunting as it may seem.

At the same time, the Cowboys seem committed to playing young players at positions where production has been lacking. That's not tank mode. It's a delicate balancing act for a team trying to reach a standard of play by any means necessary.

With that said, here are three players I'd like to see more of in these final eight games:

I Know…
more Tony Pollard will mean the offense is moving in the right direction.

That's no knock on starter Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys need both backs, and if they're going to have any success on offense going forward – especially when they're down to their No. 3, 4 and 5 options at quarterback this week – they've got to find success on the ground and stick with it.

It's been a strange year for Zeke. Although he's just outside the top 10 for most 10-yard runs this season (12), he's on pace for the lowest carries of his career aside from a suspension-shortened 2017 season. Turnovers, including his fumbles, have led to deficits and pass-heavy drives. Injuries on the offensive line have disrupted the rhythm and timing of the run game.

But guard Zack Martin's return made a difference against the Eagles. The Cowboys posted 133 rushing yards, their highest total since the opener in LA, and mostly controlled the line of scrimmage against a really good Philly front.

Back to Pollard. He was terrific Sunday night, decisive and explosive, with seven carries for a season-high 40 yards. Leading 9-7 in the third quarter, the Cowboys ran Elliott and Pollard seven straight times to reach the Eagles' 26-yard line. Then a reverse to wide receiver Cedrick Wilson went for a 10-yard loss. Then Greg Zuerlein missed a field goal. Then the Eagles took the lead for good.

Really unfortunate ending to that series. But the Cowboys showed once again – even with a banged-up O-Line, even with a rookie at quarterback – that they can run the football when they give themselves a chance to be balanced. If Pollard is involved, it probably means they've got a lead or they're keeping the game close. He can be a difference maker as a change of pace with Elliott the featured guy.

I Think…
there are only so many snaps to go around, but Bradlee Anae can help the pass-rushing rotation.

Granted, I base that almost solely on his college tape. The fifth-round pick has played just six defensive snaps this season. He got zero against the Eagles, somewhat of a surprise after McCarthy expressed his intention to play younger defensive linemen (Randy Gregory, Dorance Armstrong and Anae) after the Everson Griffen trade. Gregory ate up most of those snaps with 31, way up from his six snaps against Washington the week prior.

There's a lot of football left, though. Not only was Anae a highly productive rusher at Utah, his biggest strengths were motor and technique. In a season this challenging for the defense, those two traits should get you on the field sooner or later.

I Have No Idea…
if fourth-round pick Reggie Robinson will get a defensive snap this year, but special teams would be a start.

Robinson has been inactive all eight games. The Cowboys moved him from cornerback to safety in training camp, so there's a learning curve that understandably impacts his playing time, even though the Cowboys have tried at least five different safeties next to starter Xavier Woods this season.

"He's getting better, no question. The vehicle for Reggie to play will be special teams first. That's my focus for him," McCarthy said a couple of weeks ago. "How he can develop and compete each week is on the special teams units."

I spoke to Robinson's position coach at Tulsa, Aaron Fletcher, over the summer. Fletcher coached future NFL DBs Jalen Mills, Chris Houston and Demontre Hurst at the high school level. He had incredibly high praise for Robinson's work ethic and skills.

Fletcher also coaches Tulsa's special teams block unit, where Robinson had four blocked kicks in his college career.

"He was always a threat," Fletcher said. "He could change the dynamic of a game in that regard because he was so fast getting around the edge and he was long, so him laying out, selling out, using his body to be able to go block it, he understood those angles."

If not safety, maybe Robinson can help out in the kicking game at some point in Year 1.

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