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AT THIS time a year ago Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter would be fuming after games. He would shower, change and head to his car as quickly as possible, angry not only at another loss but also at another game in which he'd had no impact.
When Porter signed a five-year free-agent contract worth a potential $30 million in March 2007, he expected that Miami would use him as a right outside 'backer in the same 3--4 scheme in which he had starred during eight seasons with the Steelers. But when Porter arrived in South Florida and picked up the defensive playbook, he realized the Dolphins were preparing to play a 4--3 base; and with Jason Taylor established as the pass-rush threat on the right, Porter would be setting up primarily on the left side for the first time in his career.
"I get here, and they say, 'Oh, we're going to do something different,'" Porter says. "I looked at the playbook and [told myself], Don't be the bad guy. They paid you all this money; let's see how it works. But after six games I didn't have a sack. It was frustrating. I didn't want to be the guy who complains and acts selfish, but I didn't understand it. They paid me all this money, and they're not allowing me to perform."
Salvation. Under new coach Tony Sparano, first-year defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni installed the 3--4, and in July the Dolphins traded Taylor to the Redskins. Porter is back in his favorite scheme, back on his preferred right side and back in the headlines. Freed to attack the quarterback once more, he leads the league with 12 sacks and—along with new QB Chad Pennington and an offense that will try any number of tricks—is a major reason why Miami, 5--4 and a game out of first place in the AFC East, is one of the surprises of the NFL season.
Before outlasting the visiting Seahawks 21--19 on Sunday for their third straight victory, the Dolphins spent the week asking themselves: Why not us? As in, why can't Miami go from worst to first in one season? The 31-year-old Porter, coming off a season in which he had only 5 1/2 sacks, echoed that sentiment when asked if he's thinking about breaking the single-season record of 22 1/2, set by Michael Strahan of the Giants in 2001. "I don't think it's far-fetched," Porter says. "I've got 12, and if I get at least one each game the rest of the way, that's 19. And then if I have a couple of games where I get two or three, I'm right there."
Employing the speed and tenacity that earned him All-Pro honors three times in Pittsburgh, Porter has had at least a half-sack in seven consecutive games and in eight out of nine overall; he has had multiple sacks in three games. Those numbers are in stark contrast to last season, when a six-game drought was his longest since his rookie year.
Earlier this season, Texans tackle Duane Brown prepared for Porter by looking at tape of him from 2007. Bad idea. "Last year," Brown says, "he looked like he wasn't really into the defense. [In the game] he showed me some things I hadn't seen on film and made it difficult." Though Porter had only one sack in Miami's 29--28 loss at Houston, he so disrupted the passing game in other ways that Texans offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had to make blocking adjustments—sliding the center in Porter's direction to double-team him and using the running backs to chip him.
"He's very quick, very strong and relentless," says offensive coordinator Turk Schonert of the Bills, against whom Porter had two sacks and four tackles in a 25--16 Week 8 win. "Joey's got one thing on his mind, and that's getting to the quarterback. They're using him the right way, and he's having fun." Best of all has been his impact on the success of the defense. The unit ranked 30th in the NFL in points allowed (27.3) last year but has improved to 11th this season (20.2).
On Sunday, instead of rushing to his car after the win over the Seahawks, Porter lingered near the parking lot to laugh and joke with Bengals wideout Chad Johnson, a Miami native who attended the game on Cincinnati's bye week, and comedian Mike Epps. The big smile is back on Porter's face.