Neal Olkewicz was standing next to Coach Jack Pardee on the sideline today, just after the game against the Browns had started when he was told to go in and play.

"Now?" Olkewicz asked.

"Now," Pardee said.

And that marked the beginning of this enthusiastic rookie's first extended action with the starting defense.

Olkewicz replaced Don Hover during Cleveland's opening series after the Browns started driving down the field by imitating Philadelphia's success last week and bursting through the middle of the Redskin line.

"We wanted to be hefty up the middle," Pardee explained later. "Cleveland was going with a big backfield (because of an injury to scatback Greg Pruitt) and we figured Neal could sit in there and jam it up."

So Hover came out and Olkewicz, thefree agent from Maryland who first gained the attention of his coaches with his solid hits in training camp, would up playing the rest of the game. He finished with 12 tackles, four assists and an initial rating of "great" from his defensive coach.

"With a big back like Mike Pruitt carrying the ball most of time, we needed a reckless guy in there who could hit inside," said defensive coordinator Doc Urich. "Neal played a hell of a game. He made some mistakes, but he had some great hits."

Olkewicz had practiced extensively with the first string last week, but he thought it was a ploy to confuse Cleveland. Then Pardee told him to stand next to him as soon as the game started.

"Coach called me over and we talked about blocking schemes they were using," Olkewicz said. "He said they wanted to work me in. I figured I might get in some time but I couldn't believe it when he sent me in right away."

Olkewicz immediately made his presence known. He was in on the tackle which caused Cleo Miller to fumble at the Redskin five, an error that ended the Browns' first scoring threat. The rest of the way, he stood out by roaming from sideline to sideline, smacking people.

"I feel great because I was playing,' he said. "I'll be happy whether I start or not next week. I tried to prepare myself for this week and I guess it paid off."

Olkewicz got burned a few times, especially on a draw play that led to a 33-yard gain by Calvin Hill to set up Cleveland's go-ahead field goal in the third quarter.

"But we basically did what we had to," Urich said. "We kept them from burning us on big plays. I thought we had a fine effort against a good offense."

Although Cleveland gained 304 yards, the Browns hardly moved at will against a Redskin defense embarrassed last week against the Eagles.

Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe was forced to throw 25 times after his running game proved inconsistent. "No one can beat us if they have to pass that much," cornerback Lemar Parrish said.

But the Browns also put together a fine eight minute march in the fourth period that appeared to all but end Washington's hopes for a victory. Combining runs with short passes to Hill, Sipe had Cleveland on the Washington 14 when a third-down fling to Hill was caught out of bounds. Don Cockroft then missed a 32 yard field goal

"When you've had an extra point blocked and a field goal blocked, you start to think a little," linebacker Pete Wysocki said about Cockroft's final miss, a horrible and end-over-end twister. "Besides, it was a tough field to kick on."

Said Cockroft: "I didn't feel good when I kicked it."

Wysocki was a happy man because he g ot unexpected playing time for Rich Milot. Milot fractured his left wrist in the opening series and will be out about three weeks.

"It was enjoyable getting out there and playing some linebacker," said Wysocki, who had lost his starting job to Milot before the season opener. "I felt good and winning makes it even better. But give our young kids credit. They are coming around and pulling us together."

Among those young kids is another linebacker, Monte Coleman, who, for now, is making a name for himself as the new star of the special teams.

Coleman had four tackles on the coverage teams and also blocked a Cokroft field goal attempt. He said Cleveland center Gerry Sullivan helped set up that block -- and a block of a Cockroft extra point try -- by lifting the ball slightly before he snapped it.

"Every time he lifted it, we knew he was snapping it," Coleman said. "It allowed Ray Waddy and myself to get a quick start and apply outside pressure.And Coy Bacon was blocking down so well inside that it added even more pressure.

"I'd like to play defense eventually, but until I do, these special teams are for me I love'em."

But until the Redskins pulled out the game at the end an ineffective offense had offset Washington's defensive and special team performances. The Redskins couldn't score on three runs from the one and Joe Theismann had a nine-yard pass intercepted at the goal line by Thom Darden.

"If I tried that pass nine times, he'd probably intercept it nine times," Theismann said. "Ricky (Thompson) was open. Darden reads your eyes and I tried to look him off but I didn't have time. It was a quick pass and he went the right way."

But thanks to that winning drive, Washington could forget about its mistakes. The Redskins are 5-2 with six home games left. They are thinking of the playoffs.

"We've learned how to win," center Bob Kuziel said. "We couldn't hold onto a lead against Houston but now we've matured. I like what I see with this team. I like it a lot."

Sipe, meanwhile, who watched the final drive in frustration on the sideline, termed Theismann's performance brilliant.

"I tip my hat to Joe Theismann," he said. "Their last drive was brilliant, but the game should not have been that close for that drive to be difference."

Added Cleveland Coach Sam Rutigliano, "The key to the game was our inability to score late in the game when we moved the ball deep into their territory. We score there and they'd be fighting a 10-point deficit."