Special teams leads to bigger things

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Since the start of the 2010 season, no running back in the NFL has more rushing touchdowns than New England's BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Considering the talent at that position across the league, it's a remarkable stat, but even more so when you consider how far the undrafted Green-Ellis has come in four seasons with the Patriots.

So what did Patriots coach Bill Belichick peg as the biggest area of improvement for Green-Ellis?

"Special teams," said Belichick, leaving reporters a bit dumbfounded by the suggestion. After all, Green-Ellis has played sparingly on special teams since becoming the Patriots' primary ball carrier the past two seasons.

"He didn't do much [special teams] in college and I didn't think he was really very good at it," explained Belichick. "It's probably one of the reasons why he didn't initially make our team."

Green-Ellis went undrafted out of Mississippi and despite landing with the Patriots, he was released as part of final cutdowns before the start of the 2008 campaign. Green-Ellis was inked to the team's practice squad and it might have ultimately been his ability to work his way into the kicking game that opened doors for a larger role.

"He improved in that area, significantly," said Belichick. "I think he does a real good job for us in the return game and coverage game when we've asked him to do it. That's actually led to him getting more opportunities offensively.. His improvement in the kicking game got him on the roster, it got him to the game, and it got him the opportunity to run the ball, which got him more playing time on offense.

"I know that probably doesn't make any sense, but that's the way it works. If you're not the starting running back -- or the starting whatever -- if you can't play in the kicking game, it's hard to get those players active on the game day."

For those on the Patriots' roster who are trying to carve out their own roles, Green-Ellis' ascension provides a blueprint for increased playing time. Special-teams work is hardly glamorous, but it's undeniable how much of an emphasis the Patriots -- and Belichick in particular -- put on it.

Look at second-year linebacker Dane Fletcher. His defensive snaps have been limited (he didn't appear on a single one versus the Jets on Sunday), but he's carved out a role as a member of three special-teams units and serves as fullback on short-yardage situations.

"Especially for an undrafted guy, [special teams is] about the only way to really prove that you can make it on the field and perform," said Fletcher. "You gotta prove that you can perform on special teams, which, in a lot of ways, is a much faster game. Being on kickoff and kickoff returns and whatnot, once you get a role on special teams, they might trust you more on offense or defense."

Safety James Ihedigbo arrived from the Jets with the label of "special-teams ace," which is the polite way to suggest he's not ready to be a starter at his defensive position. But excelling in the kicking game has already opened doors for Ihedigbo, who appeared on 51 of 54 defensive snaps Sunday (practically doubling his total previous playing time -- 24 defensive snaps -- over the first four weeks of the season).

"[Ihedigbo is] a smart player, he's an instinctive player, he's tough, and shows up in the kicking game," said Patriots personnel director Nick Caserio. "He's come in and worked hard and made the most of his opportunities. When players come to our program, ultimately it's up to them. Their performance will dictate what their role ultimately is on the team."

Matthew Slater wears the title of special-teams captain and is a core special-teamer (playing on all four major units -- kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return, punt coverage). But even on a team that's rather stocked at wide receiver, he's seen increased reps at his offensive position, even taking more snaps than this year's big-splash acquisition, Chad Ochocinco, during a Week 4 win in Oakland.

"I'd like to think my hard work overall helped [in gaining more wide-receiver reps]," said Slater. "But, for me, I'm just going to do whatever the coaching staff asks me to do."

Special teams has offered a player like rookie Shane Vereen an opportunity to simply get on the field. A preseason hamstring injury forced him to the back of the running-back depth chart, but those reps in the kicking game could allow him to make a Green-Ellis-like surge over time.

Ultimately it's up to the player to make an impact on those units. As Belichick noted, playing time offensively or defensively is not a reward for special-teams contributions, it's simply a sign to the coaching staff that the player is able to make an impact.

"It's not rewarding them -- they earn it," said Belichick. "If you're an offensive or defensive coach, you have your 20 guys or whatever it is at the game. You don't have much depth at any position. If you have seven offensive linemen or a couple tight ends or three or four backs or five receivers, whatever it is, it's not like you have an unlimited number of guys. To take a player to the game who is, let's just say is a good offensive player and he can do a couple of things for you that you like as an offensive coach. From a team standpoint, you just can't afford to take a player to the game that's maybe only going to play a half a dozen plays on offense who can't contribute in the kicking game. Maybe you can take one of those guys to the game, but you can't take very many because who is going to play on special teams? If you're only going to get a handful of plays out of him on offense and defense, it's just not worth it. So you take a player who is going to play in the kicking game who will play 15 or 20 plays in the kicking game.

"OK, so now he's at the game. So now you're the defensive coach, 'I know that 'Joe' is going to be at the game, so what can I do with him? Alright, well maybe I can use him on this or I can use him on that, but I know I have him and I can use him. Whereas this other guy, I have plans for him, but he's not going to be active. What's the point? We just can't get him there."

Belichick is often referred to a defensive coach, a label assigned after the Super Bowl-winning success he enjoyed as a coach on that side of the ball with the New York Giants. What's often neglected is the fact that his entire first decade in the league was spent on special teams.

And while some tend to gloss over the importance of special teams, it's clearly never been lost on Belichick.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.