"Hey, Wex!" Mike Tomlin shouted as he charged down the sideline toward me with that big smile of his.
"Did you see what I did today?!"
Yes, on this day Tomlin had moved rookie running back Dri Archer over to work with the wide receivers.
I noticed it. I passed Tomlin's test. I usually do.
The Steelers' coach has fun with me. And I really think he's jaggin' me because of my insatiable curiosity about his team, even in the spring time. This amuses him, but I would like to think he has a modicum of respect for my dedication. After all, he did say, with a twinkle in his eye, "You ARE the Answer Man."
Anyway, here is what my four weeks of daily, horn-to-horn sideline dedication taught me about what Tomlin has on his hands this spring:
QUARTERBACKS -- Ben Roethlisberger's leadership is no act. Yes, of course he spent extra time working with newcomer Lance Moore, but he also spent quality time with age-old pals such as Matt Spaeth working on the little things. Roethlisberger really, really wants it this year. Tomlin told me I could make myself believe whatever I want to believe, that "we're all on a mission," but there's no doubt in my mind that Roethlisberger has taken a big step forward this year as a leader. Maybe it's the upcoming contract negotiations. Maybe it's the 32nd birthday. Maybe it's the back-to-back 8-8 records. But Roethlisberger is very hungry, and when he eats, they'll all eat. As for the backups, Landry Jones was given the bulk of the second-team snaps. He got rid of the ball much more quickly than in his rookie year. It was a sign he knows where to go with it, but he's still throwing too many interceptions.
RUNNING BACKS -- Le'Veon Bell's positioning as a receiver shouldn't have been as newsworthy as it was this spring. He's 6-1, lost 10 pounds at a speed-and-explosiveness winter camp, and can catch. So of course he's going to line up wide on occasion, and with that LeGarrette Blount can also get on the field with his power running skills. Archer has blinding speed but is lacking -- in my opinion -- as a receiver. He's too small, and one day Tomlin complained to WRs coach Richard Mann about Archer's "go routes." Mann was supposed to hold class with Archer on that topic, but Archer had to miss because of a knee issue that kept him out of workouts in the second half of the spring. (Word is the trainer was being overly cautious with minor injuries this spring and the coach wasn't fighting him on any of it.) At fullback, Will Johnson showed outstanding hands and speed. He'll be very effective in spots in his third season.
WIDE RECEIVERS -- Moore was the most overhyped player of the spring. Of course he can catch and run clever routes over the middle. That's what he does, and it wasn't going to change. But it was Markus Wheaton who impressed all of the people who matter with his spring. He and rookie fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant are the guys to watch at training camp. Bryant has a very similar mentality to that of Plaxico Burress, which is something that caused the quick-twitched 6-4 receiver with 4.4 speed to slip to the fourth round. There are questions about his attitude. But the Steelers came down hard on him early. And since Bryant wasn't a top-10 pick as Burress was, he knows he had better take that hard coaching. And he did. He said he loves it and needs it. This is no Fred Gibson. No, Martavis Bryant can become a superstar if he continues to take this hard coaching the way he did this spring. As for the next tier, Justin Brown had a strong spring, but really so did Darrius Heyward-Bey. He's a classy veteran to whom Tomlin showed great respect and appreciation. DHB, as he's called, won't be outworked, nor for the most part will he be outrun. He'll drop a few, but I wouldn't say he has bad hands. He's a helpful vet who knows how to play special teams. He could make it. Derek Moye and Danny Coale add to the reason OC Todd Haley called this the deepest group he's ever seen. Coale might have the softest hands on the team, and the former 2012 fifth-round pick by the Cowboys is 1 1/2 years removed from an ACL injury which hasn't appeared to have hurt his 4.37 pro day speed. Kashif Moore is small but catches everything, and C.J. Goodwin, the Mel Blount discovery with minimal D2 college experience, looks like he could become a player down the road.
TIGHT ENDS -- Heath Miller looks as good as ever and Spaeth, a very good blocker, is working hard to offer more help in the red zone. David Paulson is battling Michael Palmer and seventh-round pick Rob Blanchflower for the third spot. Blanchflower at times showed soft hands but at other times looked spastic. New UMass coach Mark Whipple returned to the South Side one day and explained that Blanchflower might still be feeling the effects of his hernia problem from last season. Whipple added, "I said, 'Do what 83 does and you'll be all right.'" Right now Blanchflower appears destined for the practice squad.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- Mike Munchak is a former head coach who knows how to deal with the media, so he was spilling all of his cliches for the mob and cameras on the one day assistants were allowed to talk. I waited, because I wanted at least a few nuggets of truth. When the cameras clicked off, and the mob turned away, I stepped up. But I opened my mouth and they all came right back. So Munchak gave me more cliches when I asked him if a new O-line coach really could be a team's most valuable off-season addition, and if he can salvage Mike Adams. With the cameras back on, no information was provided to either question. But all of the linemen rave about Munchak's "dumbing down" of the rules, calls and terminology. He's made it simpler, and vets like David DeCastro said five guys being on the same page is more important than any complex technique Munchak can teach them. The other difference on the OL this spring is depth. They are five legit tackles deep (counting rookie T-C Wesley Johnson) and they have three veteran centers. The second-team guards this spring were street free-agent Bryant Browning and practice-squadder Chris Hubbard, along with third center David Snow. The exciting part, though, will be watching DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey perform side-by-side (and of course down the field) for Munchak.
Tomorrow: The defense.