On most occasions, Joey Porter doesn't need much incentive to get ready for a game. Of course, it never hurts when the game in which he is playing is in the national spotlight. Or when the other team has a big-play linebacker who is sometimes mentioned as a candidate for defensive player of the year.
When the Steelers opened their season against the Miami Dolphins, a prime-time spectacle that officially kicked off the 2006 NFL season, Porter was at his Pro Bowl best. He had two sacks and a 42-yard interception return for touchdown that highlighted a 28-17 victory.
Tomorrow, in another prime-time game in San Diego, Porter won't be the only Pro Bowl outside linebacker on the field. Shawne Merriman, the NFL's defensive rookie of the year in 2005, plays the same position as Porter in the Chargers' 3-4 defense and has registered 13 sacks in 13 starts.
That should be enough to amp Porter even more, if such a thing is possible, for the 8:15 p.m. game at Qualcomm Stadium.
"It's just like when I play against Baltimore, when you watch Ray [Lewis] go out there and make plays," Porter said. "You can't have a silent game. You want to make some noise, too. I feed off that."
The Steelers (1-2) are hoping Porter, a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, is hungry. He has been noticeably quiet in the past two games -- losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals -- and the Steelers want to be able to pressure quarterback Philip Rivers, a first-year starter who has never had to decipher Dick LeBeau's complex defense.
But if ending a modest two-game losing streak isn't enough incentive, the prospect of being featured in a game against Merriman should be enough to whip Porter into a frenzy that goes beyond his normal animated persona.
"If I'm watching another guy go crazy out there on defense, I feel like why can't we do same thing," Porter said. "It raises your play. It raises the elevation of your game because you're not going to sit back and watch another guy go crazy and you have the opportunity to go out there and make plays.
"You want to go out there and have a good game, especially if he has a good game. It makes you want to raise your level, make as many plays as he does, or more, if you can."
Make no mistake, Merriman makes many dominating plays for the Chargers (2-1).
He already has four sacks in the first three games after registering 10 last season as a rookie. Even though he had a 10-day training-camp holdout and didn't become a starter until Week 7 -- he was a backup when the Steelers beat the Chargers on Oct. 10 -- Merriman was second to Porter (10.5) in sacks among NFL linebackers.
But, unlike Porter, the Chargers will flip-flop Merriman and sometimes line him on the left side of their defense, depending on the situation. At 6 feet 4, 272 pounds, he is built more like a defensive end -- the position he played at the University of Maryland.
Merriman, though, might not be 100 percent against the Steelers. He left practice earlier this week with a flare-up of Achilles tendinitis, an injury he has experienced before, and is listed as questionable on the team's official injury report.
"He's got the full package in what you want in an outside linebacker in the 3-4," said left tackle Marvel Smith, who will line across from Merriman. "He's big, strong, fast, and the biggest thing to me is he's relentless. He never gives up on a play. He's never tired in the fourth quarter. He's still coming as hard as ever."
"I think their whole defense, they're real aggressive, they're high-energy, high-motor. ... They play the same way we do," said outside linebacker Clark Haggans. "Our defense is very athletic and there are interchangeable assignments we can do on the field. I think it's basically the ability the players have in general and the scheme of the things they do."