What Is A First Down In Football? Explanation, Game Strategy, And More

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If you are a football fan, you are probably not too familiar with the concept of down. With each down, the attacking team will deploy a different attractive play.

First down is one of those milestones that all teams aim to gain possession of the ball. So, what is a first down in football?

If you are also wondering about the whole down series, let’s find out with Scott Fujita in this article.

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Football near first down line.

What Is A First Down In Football? 

In American football, the 1st down was the first scrimmage down on the list of four downs. The offensive team passes 10 yards to continue to possess the ball.

When playing, only one team has possession of the ball. The team that is holding the ball is called the offensive team, and the other team is the defending team.

The attacking team will have four chances to bring the ball 10 yards ahead and each such attempt is called a “down.” Basically, the first down is the attacking team’s first attempt to move the ball forward.

If they can successfully move the ball from the first down spot and hit the “line to gain” they will be refreshed with a set of four fresh downs. Otherwise, the attacking team will have to move to the second down.

On the playing field, the 1st down line is defined as a yellow line that extends across the entire surface of the court.

The Down Cycle 

The first down is the part of a down cycle that consists of four downs. The goal of the attacking teams is for them to hit 10 yards and hit another 1st down marker.

Downs that follow the cycle include the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th downs. If the attacking team cannot bring the ball far enough to the line after four attempts, they will lose the ball to the defending team.

Then the roles of the two teams will change. The defending team will become the offensive team and vice versa.

At this point, the offensive team will often choose to punt in the fourth down position to make the opponent run an extra distance to score a field goal or touchdown.

If the game time is almost over or the attacking team is only a few yards short, they will deploy a bold play. The goal is to try to prolong possession until the game is over if they fail to get 1st down.

Game Strategy 

The strategy of the attacking team on 1st down is to perform running plays.

Bringing the ball to the 1st down line not only opens up passing play and forces the opponent to play the ground game, but it also helps the attacking team advance a few yards to be able to make shorter passes.

A successful running play on the 1st down line can often shorten the number of yards by more than 5. Besides, this tactic also fools the defending team into believing that the opponent will continue to run next time.

This combination will make passing the ball much simpler for the second down. 

In an era when passing was the focal point of the game, strategies for winning first down became extremely unpredictable.

Speaking The Lingo 

When you listen to commentators talk about the situation of a match, you will somewhat understand the progress of the attacking team to the first down.

Usually, people call a 1st down situation a “first and 10” because the attacking team will need to gain 10 yards to reach the first down.

If the offensive player finishes the turn and gains four yards, the next status will be “second and 6.” It means you start on the second down and need six more yards to score the first down.

In case the distance to the target line is not significant, one can change the units from yards and inches. Conversely, if the distance from the target line to the line of scrimmage is too far, the word “long” will be replaced.

If an attacking player reaches the first down within 10 yards of the goal line, that line becomes the line to gain. The reason is that they won’t be able to make another 1st down without scoring.

In these situations, the commentator will replace the word yard with “goal.”

A phrase you also often hear in a match is “two/three and out.” The meaning of this slang is that the football team failed to get the ball 10 yards ahead and had to punt it.

As a fan, you wouldn’t want your team to be in this situation too much. Conversely, the more first downs a team has, the more chances it has to score.

Referee Signals For Downs

With the first down, the referee will signal by pointing his right hand towards the goal line of the defending team.

When the referee closes his hand into a fist and raises one arm above his head, he is signaling fourth down.

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First down marker

The Problem When Watching First Down On TV

Some of the problems for spectators who are just getting used to football is that they will have difficulty observing the actions of the players.

Tracking and counting the remaining yards of a down set is not really easy. Many people find it difficult not to focus on the game because they may miss important details.

How To Solve It? 

Fortunately, the board has come up with the most relevant improvements to enhance the audience’s football-watching experience.

They will have their own team and technology to keep the audience informed about the progress of the match.

First, there will be two rodmen holding metal rods with Xes on top and a chain that is exactly 10 yards long. One end marks where the team starts possession of the ball and the other end marks the 1st down line that the defenses must go to.

Then you need to pay attention to the boxman. This person will indicate the area the ball is in and what down it is by numerical order with a marker.

In most NFL stadiums there will also be a spot marker at the start of the race. You won’t find them in high school or college gyms.

Whenever the team can score the first down, the officials will go to the area to locate the ball. They will use chains and rods to determine if this is a valid down.

With the development of technology, it becomes even easier to identify the 1st downline area when you are watching TV.

On the screen, you can see an electronic line extending across the field to mark the area where the offensive team must go.


Please continue reading this section if you still have unanswered questions about the first down.

What is a first down in football


What Makes A First Down In Football?

The condition for a team to achieve first down in football is to bring the ball at least ten yards ahead to gain possession of the ball.

What Is The 2nd Down In Football?

The 2nd down in football is the second down in a series of downs. If during the 1st down, the attacking team cannot touch the first down line, they will move to the 2nd down.

What Does 1st Down And 10 Mean In Football?

For the loyal audience of the Super Bowl, perhaps the word “1st down and 10” is already a familiar lingo. This phrase means that this is the attacking team’s first down and they need to hit ten yards.

What Is 3rd Down In Football?

The third takedown in a streak of up to four downs, traditionally the last run/pass before punting the ball.

What Is 4th Down In Football?

The fourth drop in a series with a maximum of four downs. It is often used to hit the ball down the field or try to score a goal. 

If not converted or punted, the opposing team will gain possession of the ball from any position.


What does first down mean in football? The 1st down was the first in a series of four downs where the goal of the offensive team was to win 10 yards. If they succeed, they will be entitled to a first down and a new set of four downs.

If they win the first down early, the team will have a lot of advantages. On the contrary, they will have to punt or push the ball the farthest to disadvantage the opponent.

The contention and tension of the plays have made the matches more attractive than ever. The audience has never felt the excitement of watching football.

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