Special-teams ace catching on at WR

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In his 85th NFL game and on his 53rd career catch, Patriots wide receiver Sam Aiken finally found the end zone with a 54-yard touchdown reception in New England's Week 7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Maybe it was appropriate that the touchdown, which was highlighted by Aiken's ability to run away from defenders after a short grab, came on foreign soil inside London's Wembley Stadium. After all, it's been a long journey to the end zone for Aiken.

So long, in fact, that it took him a moment to remember to spike the ball.

"I've never seen the end zone," Aiken said with a smile Wednesday inside the Patriots' locker room. "I didn't know what to do with the ball."

Aiken is listed as a wide receiver on the roster, but for seven NFL seasons he's been regarded as a special-teams ace -- a double-edged sword in the world of professional football.

Special-teams aces are generally held in high esteem by coaches, but rarely get public attention for their on-field contributions. It's even rarer that they see action at their true position.

Take Larry Izzo, for example. A linebacker by trade, Izzo spent eight seasons in New England as a special-teams ace, earning two of his three career Pro Bowl nods with the Patriots. But he saw the field as linebacker only at mop-up time.

Aiken, who registered eight catches during his first season in New England last year, wasn't projected near the top of the wide receiver depth chart this season. But Joey Galloway turned out to be a bust, rookies Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate endured injuries, and Isaiah Stanback is still getting comfortable as a full-time receiver.

Which has opened the door for Aiken to be the team's third receiver. He's started five games there this year and posted career bests with 16 catches for 229 yards.

One of the few bright spots in Monday's lopsided loss to New Orleans, Aiken registered team- and career-highs with seven catches for 90 yards.

What's more, he might have cemented himself as the third receiver in New England's offense.

"Injuries are a part of it and Sam is really stepping up and taking that role," said quarterback Tom Brady. "A guy who, coming into the year, was primarily a special-teams player for us and a backup receiver is now more of a receiver for us, while still being a key part of our special-teams unit -- captain of our special-teams unit. You need good players out there and, like I said, when [opponents] really focus their attention on Randy [Moss] and Wes [Welker], to be able to throw the ball to a guy like Sam, that was extremely important for our offense this last week."

Added Welker: "Sam has been a great player, and [he's] really making sure that he's making plays out there and doing the jobs that he needs to do. His role is going to be expanded, and he realizes that and he has to step up."

Aiken caught 146 passes for 2,205 yards and 15 touchdowns at the University of North Carolina. In his senior season with the Tar Heels, he set school records with 68 catches for 990 yards.

Chosen by the Bills in the fourth round (127th overall) of the 2003 NFL draft, Aiken stayed on the 53-man roster because of special teams, hauling in just 19 catches for 250 yards over five seasons in Buffalo.

Overall, Aiken has 78 special-teams tackles in 88 career games. But as Aiken's role expands on offense, Patriots coach Bill Belichick admits they might have to scale back his role on special teams -- a daunting proposition given his under-the-radar play in the kicking games.

"When [Aiken has] had his opportunity, he's stepped up, caught the ball and also run with it well after the catch," said Belichick. "He's a big, physical player -- definitely different than Wes and different than Randy. He has a different playing style, different set of skills. I think they all complement each other pretty well, and he's a physical player, which we see in the kicking game, but that shows up on offense, too.

"Sam works hard. He doesn't say much; he's a quiet guy, but he works hard, he's always prepared and he's tough. He's obviously earned everybody's respect around here and when he's had an opportunity to play he's stepped in and done a good job for us."

Aiken said the key for him as a receiver is developing trust with Brady.

"It comes down to trust -- if Tom can trust me to get open, or be at a certain depth," Aiken said. "I feel good. They believe in me and if I continue to do what I need to do, the rest will take care of itself."

One short-term goal for Aiken is catching a touchdown pass at Gillette Stadium. It'd be nice to get one inside of the United States, and Aiken promises he'll know what to do with the ball this time.

Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.