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What we learned from the Bengals’ second 2016 victory over the Browns

This may be a lost season for Cincinnati, but it’s nice to see the Bengals are still playing hard.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals put another win on the board and, to no one’s surprise, there have been mixed emotions about the victory. Some Cincinnati fans would’ve preferred to see the Bengals lose in efforts to tank for a higher draft pick, while others — myself included -- are just happy to see the team winning games again. It’s been a rough season, but things could always be worse. Fortunately, the Bengals were not the Browns’ first victory of the 2016 season, preserving Cincinnati its dignity.

There was a lot of good and a fair amount of bad in the Bengals’ Week 14 victory. Cincinnati, as per usual (generally) in its wins, got out to an early lead, but — as we’ve seen when the team has held leads — the Bengals appeared to take their foot off the gas just a tad too early, almost giving Hue Jackson’s Browns a chance to make it a competitive game.

Coasting wasn’t the wrong move to make by Lewis, as the Bengals ultimately pulled off the victory. But one has to wonder whether the coach should’ve waited until his team had a more comfortable lead to eventually start easing on the brakes.

Regardless, a win is a win, and the Bengals are now heading into another rivalry matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, looking to play spoiler against a team that spoiled Cincinnati’s 2015 season and plenty of others. For what it’s worth, the Bengals have also spoiled several Steelers seasons, making this an enticing matchup. But before we go talking about the Pittsburgh matchup — which we’ll do later this week — here’s what we learned on Sunday.

Karlos Dansby stepped up big time on Sunday against his former team.

In a game where Vontaze Burfict only recorded one tackle, his partner in the linebacking corps — a former Brown — made plays left and right. Dansby finished Sunday with a 77.4 PFF grade, good for third on the Bengals defense. The linebacker tallied 12 total tackles (11 solo), even generating a sack on Robert Griffin III. It was a solid showing from the 35-year-old veteran. Whether Dansby will earn a follow-up contract for next season remains to be seen — he’s an upgrade over what the Bengals had last year in A.J. Hawk and Emmanuel Lamur, but at 35, there has to be some concern. Regardless, it’s nice to see the veteran making plays after he’s gotten a lot of flak from fans this season.

Geno Atkins finally had that dominant statistical game he’s been missing.

The Bengals’ defensive line has to be better than it’s been this season. There have been obvious limits with the play of Domata Peko and Michael Johnson, but Atkins and Dunlap are talented enough to carry an entire defensive line on their respective backs. Both players have been playing well this season, but neither has been as good as they were in 2015. A big game from Atkins, in which he tallies multiple sacks, four quarterback hits and two tackles for loss, is what this team needed a few weeks ago. But regardless, it’s encouraging to see the defensive tackle making plays.

The Bengals’ secondary is not-so-quietly coming together.

George Iloka and Shawn Williams have looked much better in recent weeks, intercepting a pass each in the past two games. And while Adam Jonestrash talk was a bit much, he and Dre Kirkpatrick have been solid as the season has progressed. Kirkpatrick’s contract will be up at the end of this season, but it appears he is finally coming into his own and developing some great chemistry with his teammates on the back end.

It would be understandable if the Bengals were unwilling to match an exorbitant offer the corner receives in free agency. That said, it would be rough to see the playmaker go, now that the team knows it has a quality starter opposite Jones. Time will tell whether the Bengals do or do not re-sign the corner, but it’s hard not to root for the guy to stick around.

The Bengals’ young players are getting reps and appear to be improving.

This is imperative for a team that is essentially playing for its life, trying to stay in mathematical contention. Tyler Boyd, a highly criticized draft selection, has proven many fans wrong, myself included. The rookie has been a revelation on third down, earning Andy Dalton’s trust and helping his team move the sticks. It’s no coincidence the Bengals have been much better on third downs since Boyd (and Tyler Eifert) became more involved. Boyd leads all rookie wide receivers in third down conversion catches.

Cody Core also saw significant snaps, taking 80 percent of the team’s workload on offense. In fact, he even out-snapped Boyd. Unfortunately, Core wasn’t able to get very involved in the passing game, but on the bright side, he is getting reps.

Nick Vigil, Darqueze Dennard and Clayton Fejedelem did not play even 15 percent of the defensive snaps, but on the bright side, second-year defensive tackle DeShawn Williams took 31 percent of the workload. Williams has been up-and-down in his brief time on the Bengals’ active roster. Last week, he recorded a sack. One week later, however, the Browns targeted him in the run game, punching the ball right up the gut. One one play, Williams was flattened, enabling Isaiah Crowell to break off a long run.

It’s still far too early to determine who any of these players are, or what they’ll become, but on the bright side, they’re getting the experience fans have been hoping they’d get. If the active rookies continue to progress, this could shape up to be the best rookie class we’ve seen in quite some time, especially considering William Jackson and Andrew Billings will return from injury next season.

The more I watch Brandon LaFell play, the surer I am he will return next season.

In fact, I’ll add this to the point: I’m not sure the Bengals will select a wide receiver in the upcoming NFL Draft, unless they see a guy they really, really like fall down the board. With Green a fixture on the outside, Boyd the team’s clear hope as the future in the slot, Core a guy who could potentially develop into a talented number two opposite Green (or at the least a nice rotational pass-catcher) and LaFell a quality number two, I don’t see why the Bengals wouldn’t just extend the veteran another year or two. Next year, the No. 2 boundary receiver will likely be option number five in the passing game behind Green, Eifert, Boyd and Giovani Bernard, regardless of who that person is. Again, this is just my opinion, so feel free to disagree here — but if I’m in the Bengals’ front office, I have to be thinking there are more immediate needs than another receiver, especially with guys like James Wright and Alex Erickson stepping up and contributing in the rotation.

Right tackle has been an issue no matter who has taken the snaps at the position.

It’s good to see the Bengals at least trying to figure out how to solve their problem at right tackle. Cedric Ogbuehi took a few snaps on the left side while in Cleveland, while Eric Winston and Jake Fisher struggled to protect Dalton against some below-average Browns pass-rushers. At this point, you’d hope Fisher will see an increased workload. That said, it’s hard to expect the second-year tackle will get much better this season, given his flaws in limited reps.

With the compromised offensive line, Dalton needs to be better in the pocket.

This should be more of an indictment of the offensive line than it is Dalton, but at some point, the quarterback needs to come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t have the protection he had last year. Last week against the Eagles, we saw a maneuverable quarterback read the Eagles’ defense, deliver passes with precision accuracy and escape the pocket when it collapses. He was far from terrible against the Browns, but Dalton needs to be closer to where he was against Philadelphia than he was in Cleveland.

Russell Bodine needs to be better at recognizing stunts.

It’s easily the center’s most obvious flaw, and I think a lot of that has to be on Paul Alexander. The center has progressed nicely this season, to the point I don’t think the Bengals will take a center any time before the fifth or sixth round in April (if they take a center at all). But Sunday’s performance reminded us (yet again) that Bodine still has a ways to go in his development.

Mike Nugent should — and likely will — be gone next season. But it would be foolish to blame the Bengals’ 2016 struggles entirely on the kicker.

It’s hard for me to ever suggest someone should be fired — after all, I’m a student who can’t even financially support myself. But at some point, the Bengals’ kicker needs to be held accountable. Granted, the missed extra point in Cleveland was not Nugent’s fault. Something went wrong between the snap and hold that led to the ball being flat on the ground when Nugent approached it. But Nugent is a clear liability on a team that aspires to make the playoffs next season. Improving at kicker should be a clear priority this offseason.

All of that said, I’d be remiss not to say that the Bengals’ decision to keep Nugent around, while frustrating, is somewhat understandable. The Vikings sent Blair Walsh packing, but his replacement hasn’t been much better. Kai Forbath has already missed on two of seven extra points since taking over, though he’s been perfect on field goals.

Those who want to blame this season on Nugent will, and there’s nothing I can do to change their minds. But winning games is ultimately a total team effort. And the fact of the matter is, even if Nugent had been perfect on the season, the Bengals would still be a team on the outside looking in.

When my roommate, a Cowboys fan, told me Dan Bailey missed a 55-yard field goal on Sunday night, I told him that Dallas fans would blame him for the loss if the team ended up losing. He laughed at the notion, telling me that would be ridiculous. An hour or so later, several Cowboys fans — rather than blaming an offense that punted five times and turned the ball over twice in the second half alone — blamed a kicker for a loss in which a team with a high-powered offense scored seven points. (For what it’s worth, plenty of Dallas fans did not blame Bailey for the loss.)

Finally, the Browns have Hue Jackson and they’re still the Browns we all know and love. How long is Jackson’s leash?

I’m legitimately curious about this. Months ago, Jackson was hailed as a mastermind whose departure would tank the Bengals. (While his loss has certainly hurt, the Bengals’ offense is still a top-10 yardage offense, it just hasn’t been able to put points on the board to show for it.) Meanwhile, the Browns have the NFL’s third-worst yardage offense and second-worst scoring offense. I know rebuilds take time, but it’s hard to imagine the Browns won’t become frustrated if Jackson’s team fails to win a single game this year.