Understanding the down system in football

In the game of football, the goal is to move the ball down the field until you reach the opponent’s endzone.

In order for the team to move down the field, they need to gain ten yards every four downs(plays). Each time a team is able to gain the ten yards they will start again with four more plays and ten more yards to gain.

When a team is able to gain the required ten yards this is referred to as getting a first down.

Fourth down is a team’s final attempt to get the required yardage, oftentimes teams will punt the ball downfield on fourth down.

This is because failing to get the necessary yardage on fourth down gives the possession of the ball to the opposing team. This is referred to as a turnover on downs.

Down and distance

When watching a football game you are going to hear terms like 2nd and eight or 3rd and seven many times throughout the game.

To understand how downs work you need to know what both of these numbers mean.

The 1st,2nd, 3rd, and 4th terms are going to represent which down(play) the team is on. If it is their first attempt at gaining the necessary ten yards it will be 1st down.

If it is their second attempt it will read 2nd and so on. The other number you need to understand is the yardage needed to gain a new set of downs(plays).

If the down and distance is 2nd and seven this means this is the second play attempting to gain the ten yards and there are seven more yards to go.

Whenever a team gets the first down you will find the down and distance is first and ten. This means it is the first play of the series and there are ten yards to go.

What happens on fourth down?

official point to the first down marker

The first three downs are relatively similar in football. Teams will almost always spend these first three downs looking to gain the ten yards needed to get a new set of downs.

Though on fourth down teams are often more conservative with their playcalling.

This is because failing to get a first down on your fourth attempt is going to give possession of the ball to the other team.

The opposing team will start with the ball where the last offensive play ended. This means that if a team is on their own ten-yard line a failed fourth down would give their opponents the ball right in front of their endzone.

For this reason, you will find that teams will often punt the ball on fourth down. A punt is going to move the ball way down the field towards the opponent’s end zone.

Though a punt still gives the other team the ball it at least keeps them far away from your endzone.

When close to the other team’s endzone the offense will often attempt a field goal when on fourth down.

A field goal is almost always attempted when a team is in field goal range on fourth down. Similar to a fourth down attempt a missed field goal is going to give the opposing team the ball at their location.

Teams will kick field goals on fourth down because they are trying to put points on the board. Teams may go for it on fourth down but failing means they will get no points at all.

Many teams decide taking three points from the field goal is a better decision than attempting to get the first down and go for the touchdown.

This is why teams will often punt or attempt field goals on fourth down.

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