FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Football coaches at every level stress the importance of special teams.

For BenJarvus Green-Ellis, they were the lifeline to keep him in the NFL.

Green-Ellis is known primarily these days as the lead running back in the New England Patriots’ stable.

Going into today’s game at Gillette Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys, he is New England’s leading rusher with 333 yards (a 4.3 yards per rush average) and has scored five of its six rushing touchdowns.

But according to Coach Bill Belichick, Green-Ellis owes his spot to his play on special teams.

“He didn’t do much of it in college and I didn’t think he was really very good at it,’’ said Belichick. “It was probably one of the reasons why he didn’t initially make our team.’’

Green-Ellis went undrafted out of Mississippi before the Patriots signed him as a free agent in 2008. But at the end of training camp that year they released him, only to sign him to the practice squad a day later.

He was then signed to the 53-man roster on Oct. 11, 2008, and hasn’t left. Green-Ellis became a staple on special teams, both in returns and coverage. In turn, said Belichick, that led to Green-Ellis getting chances in the offense.

“We’ve probably used him less now in the kicking game than we did last year or the year before,’’ said Belichick. “His improvement in the kicking game got him on the roster, it got him to the game, it got him opportunities to run the ball and that got him more playing time on offense.

“I know that probably doesn’t make any sense, but that’s really the way it works.’’

Green-Ellis really blossomed last year, becoming the 11th back in Patriots history – and first since Corey Dillon in 2004 – to rush for more than 1,000 yards. He also scored 13 touchdowns.

“He’s a good  runner,’’ said Logan Mankins, the Pro Bowl left guard. “He finds the hole, takes care of the ball, gives you a great effort.

“That’s all we ask for, someone that’s going to run hard and do what he’s supposed to do.’’

What impresses most about Green-Ellis is his style. He doesn’t dance around, instead finding the hole and running through it as hard as he can. He has sneaky speed but is known primarily as a power back.

“He’s always been a guy that gets yards after contact, has a good forward lean, has good balance,’’ said Belichick. “He’s not an easy guy to tackle.’’

The New York Jets found that out last week, when Green-Ellis rushed for a career-high 136 yards and scored two touchdowns.

“From the day he walked in, he’s been very dependable,’’ said quarterback Tom Brady. “He’s a very versatile player for us and when you hand the ball off to him, you know you’re going to gain yards.’’

Of course, in the Patriots’ offense, it might not be Green-Ellis who gets the most carries. Belichick and his staff game-plan for every opponent. And Danny Woodhead and rookie Stevan Ridley will get their share of carries.

For instance, before Green-Ellis’ outburst against the Jets, Ridley led the team in rushing in the two previous games and Woodhead, who missed last week with an injury, led the team in rushing against Miami.

Regardless of who gets the ball, the Patriots need to run to take pressure off Brady and his receivers.

More and more, teams are playing sub-defensive packages with five or six defensive backs against the Patriots to try to slow Brady.

“We need to do it,’’ said Brady after the Jets game. “We have to run the ball. If they have a lot of (defensive backs) out there, we have to run it. If they put big guys in, we still have to run it. You just can’t throw the ball every single down against these guys, they make it too tough.’’

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH