The Denver Broncos formidable defense was even better than advertised against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. However, careful review of the film – and some help from Tom E. Curran – shows that they were receiving help from an unlikely source. Philip Kibbey explains how Bryan Stork was tipping the snap on nearly every down.

Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and Derek Wolfe terrorized the Patriots offensive line all game long, putting Tom Brady on the run and on the ground. The quarterback was knocked down an astonishing 20 times: seven by Ware, four by Miller, and four by Wolfe. Even more impressive was that, according to Pro Football Focus, twelve of those hits occurred with the Broncos rushing only four defenders.

After reviewing the tape, center Bryan Stork stood out. Not for his blocking struggles, but because on nearly every snap Stork was tipping the snap by bobbing his head. Stork’s head bobbing snaps happened with Brady lined up under center and in the shotgun. Stork tipping the snap allowed the Broncos rushers to get perfect jumps, another advantage over their out-matched opponents.

It started on the first series of the game:

The Patriots are lined up in the shotgun and Stork has his head down, looking back at Brady. Just before the ball is snapped, Stork lifts his head and then snaps the ball. There is no pause or delay – Stork lifts his head and then snaps the ball, effectively telling the defense exactly when to start rushing.

On the second snap, Brady is lined up under center. As the line sets, Stork is looking forward, but then dips his head and then pulls it back up just prior to the snap. Again, there is no attempt to disguise the timing of the snap – lift and snap. Because these were the first two snaps of the game, the Broncos were not yet jumping with the motion.

But by the third quarter the Broncos had caught on, with Miller and Ware perfectly timing edge rushes. Combining Stork’s head bob with their already elite speed enabled the two to race around tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon with ease.

On this play early in third quarter, Brady is in the shotgun. Stork glances back over his shoulder to hear the call from his QB and then returns to looking through his legs for Brady’s signal. As he lifts his head, Miller springs forward, moving before the ball is. This head start allows him to torch Cannon on his way past the beleaguered tackle.

The video below has been slowed down to highlight how in sync Miller is to Stork’s head movement:

This fourth quarter play stands out, showing just how much Stork’s head bob was contributing to huge jumps by the Broncos rushers. The Patriots line up with Brady under center for a crucial 4th and 1 play. Although Chris Harris Jr’s awareness was the key play in this defensive stop, the uncannily well timed rushes by Miller and Ware help to disrupt the play:

Nanoseconds after Stork’s head bob, Miller and Ware are off, beginning their rushes before the ball has hit the quarterback’s hands. Miller bowls over Cannon, pushing him into the path of Edelman and slowing the WR down as he fights through traffic in the backfield.

Ware, who rushes untouched, immediately gets into the face of Brady, forcing him to hurry the throw to Edelman. While the effort of Harris Jr. is remarkable, the head starts given to Miller and Ware combined to thwart this play call.

The Tipping Point

Stork’s head bobbing was not a factor at any point this season, nor against the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Game. With Brady both in the shotgun and under center, Stork kept his head locked forward, giving the Chiefs’ rushers no indication of when the snap was coming:

However, this is not the first time Stork has used the head bob with disastrous results: in Week 4 of 2015 against the Chiefs, Stork displayed the same head bobbing move. Mark Schofield wrote about it in this review of the Patriots loss, prophetically saying: “telegraphing the snap count like this is something Stork must never do again.”

It is not clear what happened to Stork in the AFC Championship, as he does not tip the snap in every game. On the road against the Miami Dolphins in Week 17, he did not tip snaps with a head motion. The Patriots were in a silent count all day because of crowd noise ‒ as they were last year in Kansas City ‒ so this may be a bad habit that bobs up at the worst times and in the most raucous road environments. But it is clear Stork aided an already ferocious pass rush against a weak offensive line, something the Carolina Panthers probably won’t provide in Super Bowl 50.

Follow Philip on Twitter @ITPPhilip.

Philip Kibbey has written about tight ends, taking advantage of a miscommunication by the defense, and inflection points.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.