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Three keys to Eagles meeting lofty expectations; why Ravens' historic preseason win streak matters

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

But first, a look at whether the Philadelphia Eagles are finally more than a paper tiger ....

If there's one thing I know about the people of Philadelphia, it's that they love an underdog. It's one of the reasons why the Rocky films resonated with the city to the point that a bronze statue of Rocky Balboa resides at the bottom of the stairs leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Given the city's underdog mentality, the buzz surrounding the Eagles heading into the 2022 NFL season might be making fans nervous about the team's chances of emerging as a Super Bowl contender. The hype kicked up a notch back in June, when Eagles RB Miles Sanders was asked about the offseason acquisition of WR A.J. Brown.

"Oh man. We all feel like we're on an all-star team, so we feel great," Sanders told CBS Sports. "We feel unstoppable, I'm not gonna lie. The vibes are great, always have been. Nick Sirianni is doing a great job just keeping the vibes right, the chemistry good. We compete a lot in practice. But we've gotta see. It's gonna come down to camp, taking it one day at a time ... putting everything together."

It's easy to understand the fourth-year pro's excitement with the team acquiring a handful of blue-chip playmakers in the offseason. OLB Haason Reddick was signed to a three-year, $45 million deal after registering 23.5 sacks over the past two seasons. The Eagles upgraded the receiving corps by trading for Brown on draft weekend and signing the Pro Bowl wideout to a four-year, $100 million deal that included $57 million in guarantees. The team added more firepower via the draft with the selections of Jordan Davis, Cam Jurgens and Nakobe Dean, beefing up a roster that did not appear to have any major holes.

The additions, combined with the Eagles' strong finish in 2021, clearly made an impression on Sanders, whose bold proclamation brought back memories of former Eagles QB Vince Young's ill-fated "dream team" declaration in 2011. While I do not expect this year's Eagles to flop spectacularly like their brethren did back in '11, the team's ability to emerge as a title contender this season comes down to three key questions.

1) Is Jalen Hurts a franchise quarterback?

The third-year pro's explosive potential as a dual threat has added a dimension to the Eagles' offense that has made the unit more difficult to defend. Hurts is the only quarterback since 1950 to post 4,000-plus passing yards and 1,000-plus rushing yards in his first 20 career starts. From the designed quarterback runs and read-option plays to the clever utilization of bootlegs and movement passes, he puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the defense with his unique combination of skills. 

Although questions persist regarding Hurts' passing skills and accuracy, the Eagles don't need him to play like Tom Brady if he continues to give them Lamar Jackson-like production as an athletic playmaker. His running skills have helped the Eagles develop into one of the league's most feared rushing attacks, as evidenced by the team finishing No. 1 in rushing yards (2,715) and rushing touchdowns (25) in 2021. The team's run-heavy approach keyed a run to the playoffs that set the table for the Eagles' offseason shopping spree. With better weapons around him, particularly Brown, Hurts must demonstrate some growth as a passer to help the team get over the hump. 

Hurts has to become more efficient and effective as a rhythm passer. From dissecting opponents with quick throws and screens to fitting the ball into tight windows at intermediate range, the Eagles' quarterback must target the entire field to stretch the defense horizontally and vertically. Moreover, Hurts needs to be efficient enough on dropbacks to manage two-minute drills and other late-game situations.

He has shown signs of breakout potential, but the Eagles need him to take a big step in his development this season if they're going to remove any doubts about whether they have their franchise player at the game's most important position.

2) Is Nick Sirianni an elite head coach?

The second-year coach deserves his flowers for revamping the team's offensive approach on the fly a season ago. Sirianni found a way to mix in some collegiate concepts to help his young quarterback and skill players flourish down the stretch.

Although game-to-game and midseason adjustments are part of the job, the tweaks made by the former offensive coordinator speak to his adaptability, creativity and vision as an architect. In addition, Sirianni's willingness to make a sudden change demonstrates his courage and confidence as a leader. 

Heading into his sophomore season, the coach will have a new set of challenges as he tries to help the team navigate a season loaded with expectations. Sirianni must walk a fine line between building up his team's confidence and eliminating some of the bad habits that frequently result in losses. From a reduction in turnovers to the elimination of pre-snap penalties that kill drives, he must encourage his group to pay close attention to the details that will increase their odds of winning. 

Considering how many games are lost through self-inflicted miscues and blunders, Sirianni's ability to keep his team focused could be the difference between a good or great season in Philadelphia. 

3) Will Jonathan Gannon's defense round into form in Year 2?

For the Eagles to win the NFC East, the defense will need to play like a top unit from beginning to end. Gannon interviewed for multiple head-coaching vacancies this offseason, but he needs to show the football world that he can build a dominant defense with a collection of five-star talents.

Reddick, Davis, Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham are part of a formidable unit at the line of scrimmage, but Gannon must decide if he will utilize a read-and-react approach or an attack the gaps plan to create more disruption in the backfield. After taking a conservative approach a season ago, the Eagles' defensive architect must build a plan that plays to the strengths of his players. Whether the defense blitzes more or sits back in traditional zones with four-man rushes, Gannon must get better performance and production from a unit that failed to slow down top quarterbacks in 2021. Tom Brady, Derek Carr, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott posted an 82.1 percent completion rate, a 21:3 TD-to-INT ratio and nearly nine yards per attempt in seven games versus Philadelphia last season (including the playoffs).

With the team adding more speed, quickness and explosiveness to the second level with Dean and Kyzir White coming on board, the Eagles have the personnel to play a variety of ways based on matchups. But they must be disruptive to keep opponents from driving the length of the field on a flurry of quick passes or deep throws over the top. 

While pairing James Bradberry with Darius Slay at cornerback should enable to defense to fare better against top aerial attacks, the combination of pressure and coverage from Gannon's direction will ultimately play a massive role in determining how far the Eagles go in the upcoming season.

BAL's preseason win streak: Good fortune or great culture?

The preseason does not count, but it certainly matters. Despite what you have heard NFL coaches utter for years, every coach in the business wants to win when stepping between the white lines.

Although the No. 1 goal of the preseason is to get your squad ready to play the marathon regular season while keeping your blue-chip players healthy, the best teams utilize this time to create winning habits that lead to success when the games count.

In Baltimore, John Harbaugh and the Ravens have taken that premise to another level. Since 2015, the Ravens have reeled off 21 straight preseason wins (longest such streak since at least 1994, per NFL Media Research), with the impressive run certainly playing a part in the team's overall success during that span.

The Ravens, who will look to extend the streak to 22 on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, have reached the playoffs three times in seven years while only posting a pair of losing seasons (2015 and 2021) during that span. While that might not sound like overwhelming success in the regular season, the Ravens have repeatedly demonstrated grit and resilience that has enabled them to overcome injuries and adversity while chalking up regular-season wins.

Look no further than the 2021 campaign, in which the team managed to hover around the .500 mark despite losing a host of all-stars (Ronnie Stanley, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Lamar Jackson) to injury along the way. The team's injury-ravaged campaign was eerily similar to the disastrous 2015 season, when the Ravens had the second-most players in the league on the injured-reserve list, including Joe Flacco, Steve Smith Sr. and Terrell Suggs, who each suffered a season-ending injury that year.

Considering 2015 and 2021 are the only losing seasons on the Ravens' ledger since the beginning of the streak, the Ravens' preseason approach appears to translate into regular-season success.

"There's going to be people that are going to say this doesn't mean anything," Harbaugh told ESPN last year when discussing his team's preseason win streak, which had reached 19 at the time. "There's going to be people that are going to look at it and say, 'Wow, that's something.' I'm of the belief that everything has meaning in life."

While some might scoff at Harbaugh's approach, the Ravens' ability to win preseason games with backup players should not be ignored. The castoffs, misfits and newbies who play in the late stages of preseason games are often called upon to make contributions at the end of the regular season, when injuries expose the depth of rosters.

With Harbaugh and his staff committed to creating winning habits in the preseason through practices and games, the backups begin to understand the standards and expectations of a winning culture.

There is a saying around the game that winners win, and the Ravens' preseason streak might be one of the reasons why they have remained a title contender under Harbaugh's watch.

Trend watch: Can anyone stop the slot fade?

If you have been paying close attention to the NFL, you have probably noticed that the slot fade has emerged as a popular passing concept around the league.

Quarterbacks are taking advantage of defenses opting to play man coverage with a single-high safety by targeting the slot receiver on a fade route against a nickel corner or strong safety. The concept instructs the receiver to charge upfield on a vertical release for 8 to 10 yards before working outside (usually to the bottom of the numbers, depending on the ball's trajectory). The route enables the quarterback to throw the receiver open by floating the ball to the boundary, away from the defender's leverage. In addition, the loosely scripted nature of the route makes it very difficult for the defender to anticipate ball placement. With the receiver subtly setting the defender up with stutter steps and head-and-shoulder fakes, the alley-oop has become a go-to play for some offenses. 

In last Friday's Packers-49ers game, we got back-to-back examples of slot fades destroying the defense. First, Packers QB Jordan Love hit Romeo Doubs on a slot fade for a touchdown. On the ensuing 49ers drive, Trey Lance hit Danny Gray on a slot fade for a 76-yard score.

During my playing days in 1990s, the smash corner was the favored route against man or blitz-man coverage. The route enabled receivers to run away from slot defenders playing with inside leverage. However, the quarterback and receiver needed to be on the same page due to the angle of the corner route. If the defender was positioned toward the receiver's upfield shoulder, the throw was directed toward the sideline, with the wideout taking a flat angle to the ball. If the defender was aligned in a trail position, the quarterback was instructed to throw the ball at a higher angle to the sideline. Considering the uncertainty on departure angles and ball placement, the slot fade has proven to be a better option for quarterbacks attempting to attack man coverage. The combination of improvisation and an expanded strike zone makes the route easier to complete. 

With the slot fade emerging as one of the hottest trends in the league, don't be surprised if you see a handful of touchdowns scored on the concept during this weekend’s preseason games.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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