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Miami guard Richie Incognito was enjoying a strong start to the 2013 season and entered Sunday’s game against Buffalo as the Dolphins’ best-performing offensive lineman.

Incognito’s roll abruptly ended because he went head-to-head a fair amount against Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who continued his own roll this season.

Dareus tied for a team high with six tackles and put a hit on the quarterback in the Bills’ 23-21 victory.

Dareus is starting to play at an elite level in his third NFL season. He leads all NFL defensive tackles with 34 tackles. He’s tied for third among defensive tackles in sacks with four.

“I think he’s playing really well,” said Bills coach Doug Marrone. “You’ve got a big guy like that and you watch him, just like in the Miami game, go sideline to sideline. … I think he’s a special type of player. I think he’s being very, very productive.”

“I feel like I’m happier this year,” Dareus said. “I’m back in a comfort zone, trying to have fun and being me.”

Dareus struggled through sub-par play the first half of last season, which started on a tragic note when his younger brother was killed in a shooting in Alabama in early September.

Dareus picked his game up the second half of last season but was determined to put last year behind him.

So far, so good. He’s already only five tackles and 1.5 sacks shy of his totals for all of last season. As a rookie in 2011, he had 43 tackles and 5.5 sacks.

Dareus hurt his ankle in the Jets game in Week Three. He says he has room to improve.

“I really don’t feel like I’ve arrived like I want to,” he said. “I guess that’s just the player in me, kind of expecting more. I feel like I leave some plays out there. I can’t go like I really want to because of injuries and things like that. I can’t wait to get 100 percent so I can get rolling.”

Dareus, 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds, started Sunday’s game by chasing down Miami back Daniel Thomas on the right sideline on the third play of the game for a gain of 4.

His best play arguably came on a first-and-goal from the 4 in the third quarter. Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill checked to a QB draw up the middle. Dareus twirled Incognito to the side before laying a big hit on Tannehill for no gain.

“I knew they had some kind of pass play,” Dareus said. “Tannehill looked me in the eyes and I looked back at him, and he came and did an audible. I’m just thinking to myself, ‘I know you’re not trying to come down here.’ Of course, he did, so I had to give him a little bit.”

Just as good a play came on a key defensive stand with 10 minutes left in the game. Dareus was lined head-up on Incognito. He shoved the guard to his left with a strong right hand then tackled Lamar Miller for a 1-yard gain.

“I’ve been in the league for seven years and I’ve never seen a guy his size be able to be so explosive and quick on his toes,” said Bills defensive end Alan Branch. “Just being as big and solid as he is, how quick and nimble he is, I think that’s what surprises almost everybody he goes against. That’s a lot of the way he gets his wins.”

Dareus’ primary position is nose tackle, where he usually lines up in a 1-technique spot, lined up opposite a shoulder of the center. It’s not easy to rack up statistics at that spot, because it’s more likely to be double-teamed. But Dareus is a good 25 pounds heavier than Kyle Williams, who excels at the 3-technique spot, opposite the outside shoulder of a guard. Williams can get double-teamed, too, but usually not as often.

“Kyle is a veteran guy,” Dareus said. “He knows how to get off the ball. He can play the 3 as good as anyone. Mario can play the end as good as anyone. So we’re not slacking nowhere. I can play the nose and run to the ball.”

Dareus does move around in passing situations, where he can be anywhere across the line in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme.

“Eventually you’re going to make a play across the front,” Dareus said. “You’re going to get your sacks. Just play inside the defense, play fundamentally sound. The way Pettine has it set up, you just play inside the defense, and it’s bound to come your way.”

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com