From The Notebook ...

It's only the first day of June, but Jim Wexell believes there's reason to be optimistic about the Steelers this season.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who's not embarrassed to make optimistic pronouncements on June 1 about the Steelers' upcoming season:

* Of course I need to see more than one week of spring practices, but I'm excited about the way they've addressed their problems.

* Sean Spence had been part of the problem at linebacker, but he now appears to be part of the solution. He's not only running and cutting without any noticeable impediment from a knee that was shredded two years ago, but he's not even worried about it.

* In one bag drill, assistant coach Jerry Olsavsky had the linebackers running in and out while clubbing the bag at the same time. At the fourth and final bag, the player makes a 180-degree turn while staying low and re-accelerating toward the imaginary quarterback. Spence passed that test impressively.

* He knows the defense better than Ryan Shazier. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Spence starts the season as the mack inside backer. Shazier would then debut as an ultra-quick rookie should: on passing downs.

* With Shazier, Spence and Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers will have three very quick linebackers if Dick LeBeau wants to go 4-3 for any reason.

* Vince Williams began one drill by chopping his feet in place reminiscent of the great Jack Lambert. Olsavsky stopped him and told him he was in the NFL now and that he doesn't want to get caught at the snap with his feet off the ground. Olsavsky then looked around as if he were worried about ghosts of Hall of Famers past.

* The first "H-e-e-a-a-t-h" of the season came from a single teammate after Heath Miller snared a sideline pass at 10:55 a.m. on May 27.

* It was already a major improvement over the first and Heath-less OTA last year.

* Later, Miller took a short pass from Ben Roethlisberger and gained about 40 yards over open grass. He was congratulated vigorously by his teammates as if he did something extraordinary. And he may have. But it was probably more a reflection of respect than anything else.

* Speaking of sideline catches, fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant has a knack for working those angles between the defender and the stripe and pulling in the pass. There's a good chance he'll be able to help early on third downs and in the red zone.

* If you watch Bryant and former first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey work together in drills, you would swear Bryant is the first-round pick and DHB is the fourth-rounder.

* Bryant is a live wire; there's natural talent and quick-twitch muscle fiber there. DHB is the try-hard guy who doesn't look anything close to being the track star the Oakland Raiders thought he was back in 2009.

* Tomlin knows that the No. 2 WR spot is his biggest question mark on offense and he's coaching Markus Wheaton hard, particularly in regard to the receiver's run-after-catch ability. It's obvious Tomlin needs Wheaton to win that No. 2 job, and win it convincingly.

* Bryant is the red-zone guy and Lance Moore is the slot receiver. The No. 5 right now looks like second-year man Justin Brown, who had a solid first week using his big body over the middle.

* Will Johnson, the speedy fullback, is catching everything. While Shazier was fast enough to run with Johnson on one play over the middle, and athletic enough to tomahawk Johnson's hands as the pass arrived, Shazier wasn't lucky enough to break up the pass. Johnson is an emerging weapon.

* It's difficult to glean much from running backs in shorts, unless they're beasts in shorts. And LeGarrette Blount is a beast in shorts.

* With Mike Munchak coaching past and future Pro Bowlers Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro among his emerging group up front, and with Blount and Le'Veon Bell in the backfield, the Steelers' running game will be back in a big way.

* Fans in Pittsburgh don't want to hear about an improved running game, but considering how Roethlisberger got rid of the ball so quickly in his outstanding second half of last season, it could all come together offensively.

* It's not just Miller who has doubled the talent at tight end this camp, but Matt Spaeth says his foot hasn't felt this well in a long time. The big blocking tight end with the soft hands, who missed most of last season, had the screws taken out of his foot a month ago and Spaeth can't wait to get back on the field.

* Rookie seventh-rounder Rob Blanchflower looks like he's going to make it, too. He's a big blocker with soft hands. Whether he starts his career on the practice squad will depend on David Paulson's growth into his third season at tight end.

* The question mark on defense, in my mind, is Cam Thomas, the monstrous free agent who's opened the spring at left defensive end, the strong-side end. Cameron Heyward was moved over to replace Brett Keisel on the weak side, or the playmaking side for the defensive ends.

* Thomas is big, and will help the run defense, but he's not very athletic. The other defensive end, second-round pick Stephon Tuitt, needs to continue working on his conditioning throughout the summer. And even if Tuitt does lose the 5-10 pounds he needs to lose, I don't see him being ready to give Thomas much of a battle at camp.

* I do see Roethlisberger wearing No. 99 one day at training camp.

* The other question mark on defense is the No. 4 cornerback, and Antwon Blake, the guy they picked up last September and who, as a punt gunner, was second on the team in special-teams tackles, is getting the time in the slot with Ike Taylor staying home.

* The word on Blake throughout his year in Jacksonville and year in Pittsburgh is that he's a core special-teamer who in limited opportunities at cornerback has always been in the right position. "He's never out of place, and that's a good start," I was told. "Now we'll see if he can play. He has a chance."

* And I'm telling you this team has a chance. Speed on defense, power on offense, depth on both lines, and of course a great quarterback. The few question marks are being competently addressed here in June.


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