Down and Distance

20 Mar
chain-crew3

Chain Crew

You will routinely hear TV announcers use the expressions “first and ten” or “three and out” to describe the actions of a team’s offensive unit during a game. They are referring to the “down and distance”. A “down” is nothing more than a play. From the second the ball is snapped — or “put into play” — to the moment the action is stopped by the officials that is one “play”.

To maintain possession of the football, offenses are given four plays or “downs” to either score or gain the yardage necessary to be awarded a “first down” which is another set of four downs. Generally the yardage needed to gain a first down is ten yards but that can change due to penalties or tackles that result in lost yardage.

When an announcer refers to the down and distance, he describing what number of play it is and the number of yards needed to gain a first down. For example, “first and ten” translates into the first of four plays and the “ten” into the minimum yards needed for a first down. “Third and four”, on the other hand, translates into the third of four plays and the offense needs to gain four or more yards for a first down.

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Scoreboards will show and down and  distance in each field situation.

In most situations, the first number is the down and the second the yards needed for a first down. The exception is when the offense starts an offensive series inside their opponent’s ten yard line. The first number is still the down but the second number is replaced by the expression” goal-to-go”. This is because the offense has to score in four downs, be it a touchdown or a field goal, as there isn’t enough yardage between the initial spot of the ball and the goal-line to gain a first down.

If the offense fails to gain a first down by the fourth down, it can do one of three things on fourth down:

– Surrender possession of the ball by punting it,
– Kicking a field goal if they are within range, or
– Going for it.

“Going for it” is jargon for attempting to gain a first down or touchdown by executing a play on fourth down. In many situations, the risk is great. If the offense fails, the opposing team will gain possession of tha ball where it is spotted. In a game where field positon often determines the outcome of a game, to start an offensive series close to an opponent’s goal is a strategic advantage. Sometimes, it is the difference in a game.

While watching a game, fans are generally focused on the action and are unaware of the battle of wits occurring between the opposing coaches because of “down and distance”. The plays an offensive coordinator will call in a “second and four” situation compared to that in a”second and eighteen” are completely different. So are the defensive schemes he will face.

To remove guessing from the process and add a little predicatbility to the game, coaches will study or “breakdown” film of their opponent’s previous games to determine their tendencies — that is, what plays or defensive schemes they routinely call in certain down and distance situations.

breaking-down-film

A coach using the Hudl program to break down film of an opponent.

In the relative quiet of a film room, removed from the hustle and bustle of a game, and with clear heads, coaches will “game plan” a set of offensive plays or defensive schemes to use in specific down and distance situations based on the tendencies of their opponent. Charting tendencies beforehand makes their job easier as they routinely only have 40 seconds — the average time between plays — with which to select a play or defense to fit the situation on the field.

 

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