First down

What is the Definition of First Down in American Football?

A first down is a crucial aspect of American Football, playing an essential role in the game’s strategy and flow. It occurs when the offensive team advances the ball, gaining a specific yardage within a set number of attempts. The achievement of first downs helps to build momentum and keep the ball in the offensive team’s possession, ultimately enabling their progression towards scoring points.

In American Football, teams are given four plays or “downs” to move the ball forward by at least 10 yards. If the offense successfully reaches this goal within these downs, the count resets, providing them with a new set of four downs to continue their march down the field. Failing to do so results in a turnover, where the team loses possession of the ball, and their opponents take over at the spot where the last play ended.

Key Takeaways

  • First downs play a vital role in the game, allowing offensive teams to maintain possession and access more opportunities to score.
  • Achieving a first down involves advancing at least 10 yards within four downs or plays.
  • First down strategies and measurements are integral to the progress and outcome of American Football games.

Basic Concept of a First Down

A first down in American Football is a fundamental aspect of the game that allows the offensive team to advance the ball down the field. The main objective for the offense is to move 10 yards forward, starting from the line of scrimmage, within four attempts (called downs).

On a first down, the attacking team begins their first attempt to move the ball towards the opponent’s end zone. They can achieve this by running or passing the ball. If they successfully move the ball from the first down spot and hit the “line to gain,” which is 10 yards from the initial line of scrimmage, they are awarded a new set of four downs.

However, if the offense is unable to reach the required 10-yard distance within the four downs, they will have to give up possession of the ball to the opposing team. In some cases, the offensive team may choose to punt the ball away or attempt a field goal, depending on their proximity to the end zone and the game strategy.

The offense consists of 11 players, including five offensive linemen, one center, two guards, and two offensive tackles, one quarterback, one running back, and one tight end. The quarterback leads the offense and decides whether to pass or hand off the ball to another player.

In summary, the first down is a fundamental part of American football, with the primary goal for the offense to move the ball 10 yards down the field within four attempts. It influences the game’s strategy and tactics, making it an essential concept to understand for both players and fans.

How to Achieve a First Down

In American Football, a first down is achieved when the offensive team successfully advances the ball 10 yards or more from their starting position within a series of four plays, or downs. This section will briefly explain two primary methods that teams can use to gain yardage and achieve a first down: running the ball and passing the ball.

Running the Ball

The first method for achieving a first down is by running the ball. This strategy typically involves a player known as the running back, who receives the ball from the quarterback during a handoff or lateral pass. Once the running back has possession of the ball, their goal is to move it down the field by navigating through the defensive players. Gaining 10 or more yards through consecutive run plays, or even a single powerful run, can result in a successful first down.

To improve their chances of success, teams often use different running plays, such as:

  • Inside Run: The running back aims to rush through the gaps between the center and guards, exploiting weak spots in the defensive line.
  • Outside Run: The running back runs around the edge of the offensive line, outmaneuvering the defenders and making use of their speed to gain yardage.
  • Counter: This deceptive play involves the running back initially moving in one direction before reversing course, catching the defense off guard and exploiting their overcommitment to the original direction.

Passing the Ball

The second method for achieving a first down is by passing the ball. This strategy involves the quarterback throwing the ball to a receiver down the field who catches it, ideally in a location that is 10 or more yards away from the starting position. To do this, the quarterback must identify and target an open receiver while evading defensive pressure.

Some common pass routes that receivers run to create separation from defenders and advance the ball include:

  • Slant: The receiver runs diagonally across the field, allowing the quarterback to pass the ball quickly and minimize the risk of being sacked.
  • Out: The receiver runs straight down the field before abruptly turning towards the sidelines, creating space between themselves and the defender.
  • Deep: The receiver runs straight down the field, aiming for a longer and more substantial gain in yardage, but with a greater risk of an incomplete pass or interception.

By skillfully executing running plays and pass plays, an offensive team can successfully gain the required yardage to achieve a first down and continue their march down the field.

Measuring a First Down

In American football, a first down is when the offense gains a new set of four attempts to advance the ball by covering a distance of 10 yards from their original starting point. It is a crucial element in the game as it provides teams with the opportunity to sustain their drive and, ultimately, score points. There are two primary methods to measure a first down: the Chain Crew and Electronic Measurement Devices.

Chain Crew

The Chain Crew, also known as the “chain gang,” is a group of sideline officials responsible for manually measuring the distance needed to attain a first down. These officials utilize 10-yard chains, which are connected by two orange markers, one at each end of the chain. One marker is placed on the initial line of scrimmage, and the other is placed where the first down line should be.

In case of a close call, the chain crew is called upon to measure the exact distance the offense has gained. The officials stretch the chains to measure if the tip of the ball has reached or crossed the first down marker. If it has, the offense is awarded a first down, and the process is repeated with a new set of downs.

Electronic Measurement Devices

With advancements in technology, electronic measurement devices offer an alternative to manual measuring in American football. Pylon cameras, electronic markers, and virtual imaging systems are increasingly being utilized as accurate and efficient ways to determine if a first down has been achieved.

For instance, the Electronic Down Marker System (EDMS) relies on GPS and additional sensors to track the ball’s position and digitally calculate the distance covered. This technology eliminates human error and decreases the chances of disputed calls.

Television broadcasts may also use virtual first down lines to visualize the distance needed for a first down, providing viewers with a clearer understanding of the game’s progression. However, the virtual first down line is not used as an official measurement tool in the actual game.

Ultimately, measuring a first down in American football is essential to gameplay and relies on the precision and expertise of both traditional Chain Crews and modern Electronic Measurement Devices.

Importance of First Downs

Sustaining Drives

First downs play a crucial role in sustaining offensive drives, as they give the offense four new chances to continue moving down the field. By successfully achieving a first down (i.e., gaining 10 yards or more within four tries), offenses can maintain possession, increase their chances of scoring, and ultimately, control the pace of the game.

Possession Time

Another essential aspect of first downs is their impact on possession time. Holding onto the ball for longer periods allows the offense to rest their defense and potentially wear down the opponent’s defense. Additionally, this prolonged possession time can limit the opponent’s scoring opportunities, granting the team with more first downs a strategic advantage.

Field Position

Lastly, achieving first downs plays a key role in improving field position. The closer a team gets to the opponent’s end zone, the odds of scoring increase. First downs help the offense get closer to the end zone and establish better field position, creating more scoring opportunities for their team and limiting the opponent’s chances of scoring on their subsequent drives.

First Down Strategies

Short Yardage Plays

In American football, first down strategies often involve short yardage plays to steadily gain ground on the field. Running plays are common as they provide a reliable way to gain a few yards. By focusing on short yardage plays, the offense not only maintains possession but also keeps their options open for passing and rushing plays during the subsequent downs.

Third Down and Fourth Down Decisions

As the offense progresses through the series of four downs, third and fourth down decisions can be crucial in determining the outcome of the drive. On third down, if the team is close to achieving the 10-yard goal, they may attempt a more aggressive passing play to secure a first down. However, if the team has not gained significant yardage during the previous downs, they may opt for a more conservative play to reduce the risk of losing possession.

On fourth down, the offense must decide whether to attempt a conversion or concede possession to the opposing team. This decision is often based on field position and the current score. If the offense is close to scoring or in a close game, they may take the risk of attempting a conversion. In contrast, if the team is too far from scoring or in a more secure position, they may choose to punt the ball and focus on defending their lead.

Using Timeouts

Timeouts are an essential aspect of first down strategies and overall game strategy. Teams often use timeouts to preserve time on the game clock, allowing them to make crucial decisions, or adjust their game plan based on the current situation. Strategic use of timeouts can have a significant impact on a team’s ability to advance the ball and ultimately score points. Effective use of timeouts ensures that the offense has ample time to execute their plays, while preventing the opposing defense from making adjustments or substitutions.

Famous First Down Plays

One of the most famous first down plays in American football history took place during the 1998 NFL playoffs. It was a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, known as “The Catch II.” Quarterback Steve Young managed to connect with wide receiver Terrell Owens for a 25-yard pass on a third-and-3, resulting in a first down and ultimately leading to a game-winning touchdown.

Another memorable first down play occurred in the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders. This game will forever be remembered for the “Tuck Rule” play. Under heavy snowfall, Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady appeared to fumble the ball after being sacked. However, the officials controversially ruled it an incomplete pass, giving New England a first down. The Patriots would eventually tie the game, force overtime, and win on a field goal, propelling them toward their first Super Bowl victory.

During the 2013 AFC Championship Game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning made a crucial first down play that became a defining moment of his career. On a third-and-17, Manning threw a 26-yard completion to tight end Julius Thomas. This play helped to maintain the Broncos’ drive, eventually leading to a decisive touchdown that secured their spot in Super Bowl XLVIII.

These famous first down plays showcase the high-stakes situations in American football where skilled players stepped up and made crucial plays that ultimately impacted the outcome of the game. The ability to gain a first down and maintain possession has proven to be essential on the path to victory in many instances throughout the sport’s history.