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What we learned from the Bengals in Week 2: Whipping boys win, Brown shutdown

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Not all was bad in what was a brutal loss for the Bengals in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

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Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Bengals played two ugly weeks of football against two formidable opponents, and they came out with a 1-1 record.

It’s easy to be frustrated, seeing how close the Bengals seemed to be in their attempt to maintain an undefeated record through two weeks. That said, it’s rewarding to see a Tyler Eifert and Vontaze Burfict-less Bengals squad sitting at .500 after two of their most difficult matchups of the 2016 season.

With just one game left until Burfict’s return and an Eifert return looming near as well, the Bengals will face a 2-0 Broncos squad which has been nearly just as dominant as the 2015 Super Bowl Champion version and a struggling Dolphins team the following week. If Cincinnati can finish its first four games with a 2-2 record or better, the team’s prospects of a sixth consecutive playoff run will look strong.

With that, here’s what we learned from the Bengals’ Week 2 defeat in Pittsburgh.

The NFL referees and #KneeGate overshadowed what was one of the more entertaining games between two AFC North powerhouses.

The work we’ve already done — and will continue to pump out — as well as the thousands of comments left on the site over the past few days have more than addressed the deficiencies of the referee crew which officiated Cincinnati’s Week 2 clash in Pittsburgh. And while conspiracies will loom about whether the NFL is rigged (something I don’t buy into but plenty of knowledgeable people on Cincy Jungle — who I trust — do), the Bengals and Steelers went head-to-head in a relatively safe, friendly and entertaining matchup. Things on the scoreboard didn’t work out in the Bengals’ favor, but the fact that both teams avoided serious injuries in what has been a ruthless rivalry in the past, is an enormous blessing. The referees deserve blame for missing calls, but they also deserve credit for keeping both teams under control in what was a heated matchup.

Sunday was another great day for fans of the Bengals’ whipping boys.

Dre Kirkpatrick played a remarkable game, allowing zero catches on three targets. He also tallied two tackles, two pass deflections and an interception in what was essentially a perfect game. That the corner was only targeted three times — and was able to get his hands on every pass that came his way — is a major testament to his offseason improvements. Yet despite his dominance, Pro Football Focus graded Kirkpatrick as the third-best defender in Cincinnati on Sunday. What more does the corner need to do to earn a higher grade is a question I cannot answer. The Bengals will have no choice but to lock up Kirkpatrick if he’s able to continue his 2016 success on a consistent basis.

Margus Hunt also played well, pushing the pocket and drawing multiple would-be holds in games officiated by a different crew. Plenty of Hunt critics have held their ground, refusing to give the big guy credit, but the Estonian — who compiled two tackles, including a tackle for loss, on Sunday — has looked great through two games.

Somewhere in Buffalo, Brandon Tate is smiling. The now-Bills veteran return man gained 125 yards on five kick returns, including a long of 45. His successor, Alex Erickson, struggled in Pittsburgh as the Bengals were killed in the battle of field position.

A.J. Green still has a ways to go before becoming the consensus best wide receiver in the NFL, but so does Antonio Brown.

Last week, people were very vocal about Brown, a guy many tabbed as the hands-down best wide receiver in the NFL. Week 2 revealed a different story: the Bengals were able to effectively shut down Brown, limiting him to four catches and 39 yards on 11 targets.

But while Green had an opportunity to outduel his AFC North opponent, the Bengals wideout had a quiet day as well, gaining just 38 yards and a 20-yard defensive pass interference penalty.

Sunday’s struggles from both receivers is revealing evidence: the NFL doesn’t have a wide receiver who is a game-changer on a week-to-week basis like Calvin Johnson once was back in 2012. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it just adds to the debate about which wide receiver is the best in the NFL.

Something needs to change with the Bengals offense.

Ken Zampese is catching too much heat for an offensive coordinator who only has two games’ worth of experience. But through two weeks, Zampese’s offense is looking too much like that of former coordinator Jay Gruden, who essentially ignored the run game entirely. Andy Dalton leads the NFL in passing yards, but running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard are on pace for 160 and 80 carries, respectively, through the 2016 season. Whether through the run game or other means, the Bengals need to utilize their playmaking running backs.

Speaking of the running game...

The offensive line looked better this week, but that’s not saying much.

Last week, the offensive line struggled in pass protection but opened up a few holes in the run game. This week, the exact opposite occurred. Dalton only took one sack, which in the line’s fairness, shouldn’t have even been scored that way. But with the good comes the bad, at least with what we’ve seen from this year’s Bengals line. Cincinnati’s line couldn’t open any lanes for its running backs, and as a result, Hill and Bernard gained just 39 yards on 16 attempts.

People will blame Russell Bodine for the line’s issues, as the center has become a scapegoat, but the entire line has struggled over the past two weeks. Andrew Whitworth was penalized in both games after near-flawless seasons in 2014 and 2015; the guards haven’t been able to open any creases in the run game like they were able to do in the preseason and Cedric Ogbuehi is still finding his footing at right tackle.

I loved what I saw the offensive line in the preseason matchup against the Jaguars; Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler made some awesome pull blocks, and every lineman seemed to give his best effort. Perhaps utlizing more pull blocks, like the Steelers have been able to do with incredible effectiveness — Jesse James seemed to make more impact blocks on Sunday than the entire Bengals offensive line — would help the Bengals’ running backs start to churn out some yards.

Special teams has become an issue.

If anything, this is a major indicator that Cedric Peerman will be the guy to return from Injured Reserve for the Bengals, delaying William Jackson’s arrival until 2017. Kevin Huber had a rare off day, and Cincinnati’s coverage team struggled against the Steelers’ unit. Credit Steelers punter Jordan Berry, who had a heck of a game, but the Bengals’ coverage team and return unit both look like they were playing with 10 men on the field.

Despite the struggles, the Bengals still look like a playoff team.

Cincinnati’s secondary shut down Ben Roethlisberger, which is something much easier said than done. The Bengals have what appears to be an easy schedule, featuring the NFC East and AFC East — both of which appear to be very talent-poor divisions. And the icing on the cake: the Bengals are getting healthier (knock on wood). Burfict will be on the field in no time, and Eifert looks like he’s making solid progress in his recovery.