In football, the offense must move the ball ten yards down the field every four plays to keep possession of the ball. Each one of these plays is referred to as a down. A fourth-down represents the last attempt to gain the ten yards needed to keep possession of the ball.
If a team fails to gain the necessary ten yards in the four downs then the other team will assume possession of the ball at their location. A failed fourth down attempt is called a turnover on downs.
For this reason, teams will often elect to punt the ball on fourth down when they do not want to risk giving the opponent the ball at their location on the field.
What happens on fourth down
Now that you know that a fourth down is the final attempt to get a first down, you may be wondering what these plays look like in action.
On fourth down the offense will choose to punt the ball, kick a field goal, or attempt to get the first down via rushing or passing the ball.
Punting the ball
Punting the ball is the most common play selection chosen on fourth down.
As we stated earlier a failure to get the ten yards on fourth down results in the opposing team getting possession of the ball at your location.
Let’s say the offense has the ball on their own twenty yard line on fourth down. In this situation going for it would be incredibly risky as a failure to convert would give the opponents the ball right near your end zone.
Instead, a team will decide to punt the ball down the field. This will automatically give their opponents possession of the ball but due to the punt, they will start 30-50 yards down the field from the ball’s current location.
This makes it much easier for the defense to stop the opposing team from scoring any points.
When a team fails to get a first down and punts it away on the first fourth down of the drive it is referred to as a three and out.
Kicking a field goal
When a team has the ball on offense their main goal is to get the ball in the endzone. Though if you are close to the endzone and find yourself in fourth down you will have a decision to make.
Kicking a field goal can earn your team three points on the scoreboard. In the NFL field goals can be kicked relatively accurately once you are within your opponent’s thirty-five-yard line.
Going for it on fourth down can give you a chance at a touchdown but you would be giving up the three points you will likely score if you decide to kick a field goal.
For this reason, teams will often choose to kick a field goal on fourth down. This will get some points on the board for the team and won’t carry the risk of attempting to convert the fourth down.
Going for it
On some occasions, teams are going to treat fourth down like any other down and run an offensive play.
In these situations, the offense will come up with a play call meant to give them the yards needed to get the first down.
When teams are down by a large number of points going for fourth downs is more likely because they need the points urgently.
Some coaches and teams have different philosophies which result in them going for fourth-down conversions much more frequently.
Oftentimes teams will go for it on fourth down based on their location on the field. For example, if a team is in the middle of the field going for it on fourth down will not give the opponents possession of the ball too close to your endzone if the play fails.
For this reason, the areas of the field in which teams will often go for it on fourth down are often referred to as fourth down territory.
This area of the football field is also just outside of field goal range which is another reason teams will often take a risk on their fourth down attempt.