Success depends on 2nd-year players

PITTSBURGH – If NFL players really do improve the most between their first and second seasons, the rebuilding Tennessee Titans should do alright against the Steelers on Sunday.

The Titans have 14 second-year players, compared to only six for the Steelers. However, those six Steelers will play important roles Sunday, starting with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and tailback Willie Parker.

Max Starks, another second-year pro, will make his first start at right tackle and Ricardo Colclough will be at least the dime cornerback, as well as a kickoff return man. Since Willie Williams was added to the injury list (probable, groin), no one would be surprised to see Colclough start at left cornerback.

James Harrison is another second-year player who'll play an important role Sunday. He's slated to spell Joey Porter on occasion at the key pass-rushing spot (ROLB), as well as Larry Foote at the inside Mac linebacker position.

There's also Matt Kranchick, the pass-receiving tight end who'll be active for only the third time in his career. The 6-foot-7 Kranchick has big-play potential for the Steelers.

But is the theory true? Do players make their most improvement between their first and second seasons?

"I definitely agree with that," said Starks. "One of the biggest keys to success is experience at this level of the game, so you definitely improve a lot between your first and second years."

Starks feels good. His name hasn't come up much this summer, and he said he's jelling with right guard Kendall Simmons. Starks will go against Kyle Vanden Bosch, who led the Titans this preseason with three sacks. Vanden Bosch has five sacks in 35 regular-season games.

Starks was dared to make a bold prediction for Parker, the speedy running back who'll start in place of Duce Staley (knee) and Jerome Bettis (calf). Staley was downgraded to doubtful yesterday; Bettis has been ruled out.

"No bold prediction for Willie," Starks said.

He might've made one last year. Starks was a cocky rookie last year. This year, right before the opener, he's humble. Call it second-year wisdom.

"Whatever Willie gets, Willie deserves," Starks said. "He's worked hard to get here."

Parker and Roethlisberger are in fact the Steelers' most important players. Their performances Sunday should determine the result. It is their second year.

"The first year, you're a fish out of water; you have no idea of the offense," said Bettis. "Year two, you know the offense, you're comfortable. Now you can see the confidence come out, so now you see an athlete look like a totally different football player because they've got confidence, they're playing with authority and they understand where they need to be. So it's not so much that they get better in terms of talent, but you can see the talent."

Parker flashed talent last year. He led the Steelers in preseason rushing and gained 102 yards in 19 carries against the Buffalo Bills in a meaningless game for the Steelers.

"In the Buffalo game, Willie had one long run," Bettis said. "But now the hope is you're going to see more in one game. Instead of one long run, he's going to have four longer runs. Now you see him do some of the things more regularly because he's got a better feel for these plays.

"The one play he did break last year was a draw play. Well, all running backs inevitably run a draw play pretty good because it kind of pops. Some of the lead plays and some those bread-and-butter plays, you've got to read certain things and run a certain way. That comes with time and understanding, so now you're going to see him break some of those; just like in the Redskins game when he broke a counter, which is not one you normally break.

"You also saw in that play he made the second cut. See, when you come out of college, it's one cut and run. In the pros it's two cuts. Before you get rolling you've got to make two cuts. That's totally different. He's able to see that now."

Bettis doesn't see nerves getting the best of Parker. Neither does Parker.

"I'm just letting everything flow," he said. "Everybody's letting everything flow. That's what you do in game week."

How excited is Parker?

"I can't wait," he said. "I'll probably have trouble sleeping the night before the game, but not now. The night before the game will be tough. Really, all I need to do is get hit. That'll get rid of the butterflies."

Just some more second-year wisdom.

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Tennessee's key 2nd-year players:

Troy Fleming, fullback.
Ben Troupe, 270-pound pass-catching tight end (questionable with foot injury).
Eugene Amano, back-up center would start if starting center (Justin Hartwig) is moved to RT.
Jacob Bell, first back-up on reconfigured offensive line.
Antwan Odom, right defensive end.
Bo Schobel, defensive end on passing downs.
Randy Starks, left defensive tackle.
Michael Waddell, third cornerback (Willie Parker's buddy and sprint rival at UNC).

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