An early look at the Pittsburgh Steelers' biggest spring question marks

A Day 2 look at the tight end, slot corner and nose tackle positions.

Matt Spaeth held the look, the demeanor, and sadly yes even the apparel, of a coach during and after Wednesday's practice.

He walked the walk, and then talked the talk, of a football lifer.

Was that a compliment?

"Yeah, I don't know if it is, either," said the 32-year-old tight end.

Yes, Spaeth is still an NFL football player, and when Heath Miller surprised him by retiring Spaeth became the alpha of the tight end room.

Then again, surprise really wasn't the exact reaction Spaeth had on that February day when Miller called it a career.

"I knew it was coming eventually," Spaeth said. "I'm happy for him. The guy was probably the most professional professional that I've ever been around. He went out on top. I mean, he had a great year, he played well, he's got family to raise now, and I'm happy for him."

The most professional professional, that fits Spaeth, too. And thus the coachly walk.

Now, for the coachly talk:

"It's tough to say how we're going to use everybody at this point," Spaeth said of the tight end position. "It's just too early to tell."

Right. It was only Day Two of spring practice, but yet it's one of the most important questions for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season: How will Ladarius Green be used?

"He's an oversized wide receiver," was how Mike Tomlin defined Green prior to last year's game against the San Diego Chargers.

Green had left college a 6-5 3/4, 238-pounder with 4.53 speed, a 34 1/2-inch vertical jump and long 34 5/8-inch arms. He intrigued the Steelers enough that four years later they agreed to pay him $20 million as a free agent to replace Miller.

Certainly they aren't planning to use him the same way they did Miller. Certainly they're planning to split him out wide and hope he helps Ben Roethlisberger deep the way the suspended Martavis Bryant did, and the way the retired Plaxico Burress once did. After all, the Steelers gave Green the No. 80 that Burress wore during Roethlisberger's magical rookie season.

Green's going to be a deep threat, right?

"Obviously, the good teams and good systems and, I guess in our case, a good offense will put him in places where he excels," Spaeth said. "But it's way too early to start talking about roles and what everybody's going to do. It's only Day Two and he hasn't even -- and I haven't, either -- taken a snap."

Spaeth wouldn't disclose his injury, but he's veteran enough for the staff to let him "coach" while allowing younger guys like Jesse James and Xavier Grimble to develop.

James was a fifth-round draft pick last year and the 6-4, 261-pound Grimble was on the practice squad.

In shorts, out of the group, Grimble is the one standing out.

"He can run, and he's physical," Spaeth said of the X man. "I think right now X has all the tools. He just needs to put it all together. He hasn't had a lot of experience. He just needs to get out there and get reps and take plays. Last year he was learning the offense, and that's tough for young guys to come in and play as well as they can because they're thinking too much. Already in two days he looks more comfortable because he understands it. Now he just needs the reps and to get comfortable out there."

As for Green, he's allowing an injured ankle to heal. He hurt it late last season and underwent surgery. And one look at his rail-thin lower legs would cause any coach to handle such a recovery with caution.

But Green has much to learn. In four pro seasons, even with his size and speed, he caught only 77 passes for 1,087 yards and seven touchdowns, or about what Miller produced in 2009 or 2012.

And Miller could block. Green -- and Spaeth guaranteed this won't change -- will have to do some of that, skinny legs and all.

"Yeah, as a tight end in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, you've got to be able to block," Spaeth said. "I think that's why Heath was what he was. He could do it all. And there aren't a lot of guys in the NFL who can do it all, at least not like Heath, which is what made him so special."

Green hopes some day that he'll be known as a special player. He has the potential and he has his own very unique qualities. How the Steelers use those qualities will help define their offense.

AND NOW, "Q"

While "X" plays tight end, "Q" has shared nickel/slot cornerback with rookie Sean Davis and played outside cornerback behind veterans Ross Cockrell and William Gay.

But Senquez Golson, the second-year man known as "Q", said it doesn't matter which specific position he plays, even at his sub 5-9 stature.

"To me it's pretty much all the same," said Golson. "I don't have a problem with either or."

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Not here so far, nor at Ole Miss where he intercepted 16 passes, including 10 in his final season. He did it against all shapes and sizes and has shown in two springs the ability to defend some of the tallest wide receivers in the game.

"I kind of figured out ways to play bigger receivers at 5-9 when I was playing against them at Ole Miss," he said. "It really doesn't make a difference for me."

Then again, Golson yearns to have the length of his on-field bookend, first-round draft pick Artie Burns.

"I just love how long he is," Golson said. "I wish I was as long as he is. He has great hands and great feet, so he's going to come along pretty good."

At this year's NFL Combine, Burns measured 5-11 7/8 with 33 1/4-inch arms. Golson came out the previous year at 5-8 5/8 with 29 3/4-inch arms. He also weighed 176, to which he's added 10 pounds after a year of NFL nutrition and training.

Golson, of course, sat out last season after undergoing surgery on a nagging shoulder problem just before training camp.

"I don't feel like a rookie," Golson said. "But as far as practices goes, I've got to make it to Latrobe, get the pads on and see how it goes."

MUTT, JEFF

It doesn't matter to Cam Heyward the size of the nose tackle he lines up next to.

What matters to him is the size of the fight within the nose tackle he lines up next to.

In two days of spring practice, the Steelers' star defensive end has lined up next to one of the biggest and one of the smallest on the first-team line.

Rookie Javon Hargrave is one of the smallest.

Yes, he's listed at 305 pounds, and actually measured an eighth of an inch taller (at 6-1 3/8) than Casey Hampton did at their respective combines. But Hargrave pales in comparison to Big Dan McCullers, the 6-7, 352-pounder who enters his third season earmarked to replace the departed Steve McLendon as the starter.

"We want him to be a dominant force," said Heyward. "There aren't many his size that come around. The ones that are his size, play a long career and are crazy in this league. You look at the guys who used to play at Jacksonville. Those guys are just humongous and they played humongous and we need Big Dan to play humongous. When he does that, everything gets stopped. Casey was the man who had three guys on him and that opened everybody else up. It starts from the inside out."

Heyward was asked if it's been a lack of effort or a lack of consistency that's kept McCullers from living up to his immense potential.

"Consistency," Heyward said. "I don't know about effort. But he’s got to put it together. He’s got to have technique. In this league, there are bigger guys -- not as big as him -- but if he adds technique to that, he’s going to be that much more of a better player."

Was McCullers close to "humongous" last year?

"You saw glimpses," Heyward said. "Steve was the starting nose but Steve's not here. And we don't need Dan to play like Steve. We need Dan to play like Dan. What I mean by that, he's got to play big, and it can't just be for one or two plays. When he's out there he's got to make the statement that they're not going to run the ball."

Perhaps as a motivational tool for McCullers, or perhaps just because the coaching staff wanted Hargrave to gain experience, the rookie third-round pick played ahead of McCullers with the first team Wednesday.

"I thought he looked pretty good," Heyward said. "He's still learning and it's still a different language but he's just got to become more confident in it. He has all the physical tools. This is going to help him as well, working with the offensive line, the ones, but I thought he did a pretty good job the first couple days."


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