Cowboys rookies finally making presence felt

FRISCO, Texas -- The turning point of the Dallas Cowboys’ 38-14 win against the Washington Redskins on Thursday was Ryan Switzer’s 83-yard punt return for a touchdown.

The rookie wide receiver was decisive with his cut up the field after fielding Tress Way’s punt. He ran by one tackler, skipped over another and used some good blocking to go the distance for the Cowboys’ first punt return for a touchdown since 2013. It was the first punt return for a touchdown by a Dallas rookie since 2010.

With a 17-0 lead, the Cowboys had some breathing room they had not had in losing three straight games without Ezekiel Elliott.

The ability to return punts was why the Cowboys selected Switzer in the fourth round. At North Carolina, he returned seven punts for touchdowns, including an NCAA record five in 2013.

But what caught Jerry Jones’ eye were the plays that led to Switzer’s touchdown.

On Washington’s first-down play from the 25, first-round pick Taco Charlton sacked Kirk Cousins for a 7-yard loss and forced a fumble, overpowering right tackle Ty Nsekhe. On third down, Cousins was flushed out of the pocket to his left, where sixth-round pick Xavier Woods dumped him with a hit. Third-round pick Jourdan Lewis was in tight coverage on Maurice Harris on the incompletion to set up the punt returned for a touchdown by Switzer.

“There’s several things about the game and we did it with those young players in the secondary,” Jones said. “You look out there and you’ve got at one time Charlton was out there and we had four or five of our picks were on the field … Now if you’re in my shoes, that’s got to make you smile about the future.”

Second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie made the first start of his career in the base defense against the Redskins. He was credited with three tackles and three pass breakups after missing six of the first 11 games of the season with a hamstring strain.

“You’ve got to approach every play that you can make plays,” Awuzie said. I feel like that’s the biggest thing, having that mindset, and when it comes, you make the plays. Hopefully those (pass breakups) turn into picks and fumbles and stuff like that and we can keep winning.”

This year’s rookie class has not been as dynamic as last year’s when Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown played vital roles in the 13-3 finish, but the success Elliott and Prescott had in 2016 would be difficult for any rookie to match.

Charlton has just two sacks on the season and many have questioned if he was worth the 28th overall pick. Awuzie has been hurt for most of the season. Lewis has been OK but he lost his job as the third corner with Woods moving into the nickel role against the Redskins and Orlando Scandrick remaining on the outside. Switzer had shown signs of life in the kick return game but his long punt return before the touchdown was 21 yards. Seventh-round pick Noah Brown has performed solidly as a blocker at receiver but has just three catches for 25 yards.

“I don’t feel more comfortable back there. I just feel like the game's slowing down for me,” said Switzer, who has two catches for 9 yards. “I feel like I’m making good decisions . I feel like the guys in front of me are doing a helluva job blocking. We’re starting to make some noise in the return game. Hopefully we can continue that moving forward.”

The Cowboys will need similar production from their rookies over the final four games.

“That’s why they drafted us,” Awuzie said. “I feel like we all got that mindset that we can’t be beat. We some young dogs. Just put us on the field anywhere and we’re going to make some plays. I feel like people are starting to see that.”