Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb heard the questions; he’s ready to show he has the answers vs. Eagles

FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys faced third-and-10, up 3 points with 1:20 to play in regulation.

Quarterback Dak Prescott dropped back, Jacksonville Jaguars defenders readily preparing for what they had assumed: The Cowboys would pass on this last-ditch attempt to extend a lead in crunch time.

Prescott fired a pass 25 yards down the left sideline, the ball hitting wide receiver Noah Brown before Brown fell out of bounds, ball on the ground beside him. In overtime, the Cowboys would lose, 40-34.

Questions about that play and execution would follow.

Among them: Why not go to the No. 1 wide receiver in the biggest moment? Why not give CeeDee Lamb, who had already caught seven passes for 126 yards and drawn another defensive pass interference call that gained 17 more, the chance?

Lamb, however, understands.

A bird’s-eye view of the play shows what the broadcast footage doesn’t quite explain: Lamb wasn’t covered by just one Jaguars defender. He wasn’t covered by two, either.

Triple coverage? Welcome to the world of an NFL team’s No. 1 receiver.

“I turned around and saw three Jacksonville helmets,” Lamb explained. “It was crazy. I mean, I guess that’s a sign of respect for me and what I’ve been doing the past couple weeks. Just trusting in my ability.

“I feel like regardless of the situation, there’s always an ability for me to get open.”

Cowboys brass similarly trusted Lamb’s ability last March when they made a surprising decision: sending then-top receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns for a fifth-round draft pick. The Cowboys knew a slew of young talents’ contract extensions loomed, and they wanted relief from Cooper’s $20 million salary. But with the financial freedom came the loss of a player who contributed 292 catches, 3,893 yards and 27 touchdowns to the Cowboys in 56 games.

Add in Prescott’s injury absence for five of this season’s first six games, and the clamor grew: Was Lamb a top receiver? Did Dallas have sufficient weapons?

Lamb heard it. He knows it. And he smiles at it.

“There were questions — you can say it,” he said Wednesday, not needing to hear the end of a reporter’s insinuation before chiming in. “I feel like [if] anybody else has questions, feel free to come ask me. I’m most definitely head down and ready for whatever.”

Dak: CeeDee Lamb ‘a huge playmaker’

Let Lamb’s production speak for itself as an initial answer.

In 14 games, Lamb has caught 81 passes for 1,087 yards and six touchdowns, 55 times generating a first down by air. Lamb has also rushed 10 times for 47 yards.

As the season has elapsed — and, notably, as Prescott has returned — Lamb’s reliability has heightened. He caught 55% of targets in the first six games (his and Prescott’s awful 18.2% in the opener contributed heavily), compared to 75% in eight since.

Only seven pass-catchers have traveled farther than Lamb; only three have hauled in more catches of 15-plus yards than his 37; and only two have topped his 21 20+yard-gains, the NFL’s mark of big-play generation.

“He’s a huge playmaker for us and we know what his capabilities are,” Prescott said last month, after Lamb caught 11 of 15 targets for 150 yards and two touchdowns in Green Bay. “Understanding that defenses may show him more attention and … he’s going to be dialed in and know his impact, to the offense and the game.”

Lamb has been routinely productive since the Cowboys — who didn’t seem to need a receiver at the time — drafted him 17th overall in 2020. Lamb posted 153 catches, 2,037 yards and 11 touchdowns in his two initial years. But he knew, entering this season without Cooper or fellow receiver Cedrick Wilson (who left in free agency), that he would need to sharpen details even further to continue to build trust with Prescott and create separation from defenders.

So Lamb has worked to endlessly refine his understanding of zone coverages, asking not just fellow receivers but also Cowboys defensive backs how best he can gain leverage and what tells, if any, his early route footwork is revealing. Did he take a false step on his release? Did he lose his sharpness later on, contributing to a drop? Would further disguise trigger more meaningful separation to ease Prescott’s load of tight-window throws? If not, Lamb — whom teammates call “250” as an ode to how he plays stronger than his 200-pound frame suggests — knows Prescott trusts him on contested catches. He wants to deliver.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, he is. Since Prescott’s return in Week 7, Lamb ranks second in yards over expected (+174), trailing only Minnesota Vikings star Justin Jefferson (+316).

“As a receiver in general, winning leverage of course versus a defender no matter what,” Lamb explains. “Being aggressive at the point of attack, whether that’s a catch in traffic or bumping at the top of the route.

“Always trying to win in the rep and get the ball.”

Prescott and Lamb’s past eight weeks have not been exclusively smooth, as several of Prescott’s 10 interceptions in that stretch came when targeting Lamb. In multiple games, Prescott targeted Lamb on a cross-facing option route over the middle of the field, quarterback expecting one route depth and receiver traversing another. Before the next series, they worked out the miscommunication on the sideline. In Green Bay, they successfully executed the same route in overtime for a gain of 15 yards.

Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said this week Prescott should “keep firing.” Prescott knows he and Lamb have reached a rhythm where he can.

“Trusting in their routes, trusting in everything that they put into it and just running full speed into everything,” Prescott said. “Just communicating on when I’m expecting them to get out of breaks, making sure that we’re dialed into the timing. I think that just comes in the reps that we get in practice and after practice.

“I’ve got so much trust in those guys.”

Eagles-Cowboys matchup to watch

Three days before the Cowboys host the Philadelphia Eagles in a game they must win to keep their NFC East hopes alive, Lamb prefaced his podium interview with a quick remark.

“I’m out of breath,” he smiled, “so work with me.”

CeeDee Lamb faced the pressure of being the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver this season after the team traded away Amari Cooper. He's delivered. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
CeeDee Lamb faced the pressure of being the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver this season after the team traded away Amari Cooper. He has delivered. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

After practice, he had run extra routes. To win against the dangerous Philadelphia secondary, he needs to ramp up his game.

The Eagles have allowed opponents a league-low 172.4 passing yards per game and 6.14 yards per attempt. They’ve allowed only 293.5 yards total, second best in the league. Former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen published his annual ESPN “Shutdown Index” this week, grading the league’s best defensive backs and secondary units. Philadelphia won.

Lamb eagerly awaits the challenge of “technician” cornerback Darius Slay and big, disruptive complement James Bradberry. “Most def” the best tandem he’ll face, Lamb said.

“They’re very instinctive, both of them,” Lamb added. “They make plays.”

But the Eagles know Lamb will, too.

Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon heaped praise on Lamb this week for how the now two-time Pro Bowler (the list came out Wednesday night) can “beat you in multiple ways.”

“Obviously he’s a very good route runner, he has elite ball skills, he can beat you over the top, he can beat you underneath,” Gannon said. “But what really impresses me about him, the more you watch, is he’s very strong at the catch point and he’s actually pretty hard to tackle.

“He creates a lot of yards after catch, yards after contact, because guys don’t wrap him up and bring him down.”

The Eagles limited Lamb to five catches for 53 yards on eight targets in the division foes’ first matchup this season, with Philadelphia intercepting backup quarterback Cooper Rush three times in a 26-17 Eagles win on Oct. 16.

Now, and potentially again in the playoffs, Lamb has a chance to show what he and Prescott can do against the highest of competition.

“We’ve got to play our best game, put our best game together, and we can’t really take these guys lightly,” Lamb said. “I feel like [we’re] coming alive.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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