The Redskins, to the man, have been saying all the proper things about the St. Louis Cardinals all week long. The offense, they say, can still put points on the board. The defense, they insist, seems vastly improved.

But privately, several Redskins also are saying the Cardinal team they face here today at 2 p.m. EDT (WDVM-TV-9) is a mere shadow of its former self, "If we lose," one player said, "we've all going to be very embarrassed."

Nevertheless, the oddsmakers insist this will be a close affair. They have installed the Redskins as only four-point favorite, even if they are 2-0 and the Cardinals are winless, with only two touchdowns to show in eight quarters. St. Louis also has lost its last six NFL regular-season games, and the last four in a row against the Reskins.

"I don't think we can take them or anyone else lightly," Redskin Coach Jack Pardee insisted yesterday. "They've had some problems. They've had a lot of people hurt and they've done a lost of shifting. But I also know that any team is capable of beating us if we don't play our best."

Tight end Gene Fugett agreed. "You can't look at records or past performances of anyone," he said. "I don't care how many games they've lost. How many times have we lost to teams that hadn't won any games? And I'm sure they also remember that we beat them the last four. That should give them some incentive."

The Redskins hardly lack incentives themselves. A victory today and agains next week against the Jets at home would take them unbeaten into a Monday night confrontation with the Cowboys at RFK Stadium.

"I hope nobody's thinking about the Cowboys or even the Jets," Pardee said. "You worry about being 3-0 before you think 4-0. No, there's no way you can look ahead."

So instead, the Redskins will focus on ways to keep the Cardinals' formerly big-play offense off the field. The Redskins would like to run the football against a St. Louis team ranked 14th against the rush in the NFC.

"That's how you beat them," Redskin quarterback Joe Theisman said. "Keep the football and keep their guys on the bench. We have to score when we get the chance but we also have to work on the clock and give our defense's break."

Cardinal management, of course, gave the Redskin defense and special terms the biggest break of all when they allowed Terry Metcalf to take his spectacular running and returning moves to Toronto last winter.

In the past, the Redskins usually double-covered the swift and elusive Metcalf with two linebackers wherever he lined up on the field. "We don't have to do that anymore," said Redskin linebacker Brad Dusek. "It just gives us a little more flexibility with our defense."

The chief Cardinal threat these days is wide receiver Mel Gray, the little man with the breakaway speed and a steak of catches in 60 straight games.

"Yeah, he's mine," said Redskin cornerback Joe Lavender. "We've got some things planned for him and I'm sure not going to tell you about them. But I have a lot of respect for the dude. He is one of the best, with speed and moves to go with it. You don't ever shut him down."

The Redskins would like to put as much pressure as possible on Cardinal quarterback Jim Hart. Hart has been allowed to call his own plays this season, but Cardinal Coach Bud Wilkinson insists his team's lack of offensive productivity can hardly be blamed on that. "He's doning everything we've asked of him. Some of our other people aren't performing the way we expected, and that's where we have to improve."

The Cardinals have been plagued by a series of nagging injuries to their offensive linemen and tight ends. The running backs, particularly Wayne Morris, have not performed well.

Pardee insisted yesterday that Morris "has the potential to be an All-pro. He's very dangerous." But Morris also has dropped passes in critical situations in both St. Louis losses and hardly is in Metcalf's league.

The Redskin offense will be playing against a Cardinal defense similar to one they faced last week against the Eagles.

"They look just as big and just as strong to me," center Bob Kuziel said. "They use the 34 and from what we've seen in the films it looks like their linebackers are very active. They flow to the ball and they're very difficult to block. I'm certainly not expecting an easy game."

Pardee, meanwhile, is expecting to find out a little more about his own team. "I really don't know how good we are," he said. "I can tell you I've been very pleased after two games, but two games also don't make the season. We've made the kind of progress I had hoped for but we've not a finsihed product yet.

"I sure don't think we've peaked out. We keep getting better every week and that's all you can ask."

The Redskins rank third in total offense in the NFC, sixth in rushing and eighth passing. Defensively the Redskins rank 11th overall, seventh against the rush and 13th against the pass. The Cardinals are 13th in total defense, 14th against the rush, fourth against the pass . . . Eleven of the Cardinals' 22 starters today did not start when the teams played last in December 1977 . . . The Redskins have scored in 90 straight games going back to 1971. The team record is 129 games from 1961 to 1970.