Quarterback Joe Theismann describes the Redskin game Sunday against the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers as a "big test for a young football team against a great opponent."

The "test" for Washington begins at 1 p.m. (WDVM-TV 9) before a packed house in Three Rivers Stadium, where the Steelers rarely stumble.

The Redskins hope to at least stay close to Pittsburgh, a 10 1/2-point favorite, and avoid the kind of embarrassing, confidence-destroying defeat that the Steelers are capable of inflicting on an opponent.

A tight game could set up Washington for a strong finish over the remaining six weeks of the season, a stretch that will determine its playoff chances.

A rout, however, could destroy everything Coach Jack Pardee has tried to instill in this fragile club. Until now, the players have not been questioning their ability, but that could change once the Steelers game is over.

Of course, no one at Redskin Park is talking about anything but a victory Sunday.

"We can win," linebacker Brad Dusek said, "but we have to be physical and we can't make a lot of mistakes. This team jumps on mistakes.

"We can't give them anything cheap."

Said Theismann: "We definitely have the potential to beat them, but a lot of things have to go our way. We just can't afford to play anything less than our best football."

So it comes down to a Redskin team that has to be nearly perfect, especially with its struggling offensive unit, against a Pittsburgh club that has so much ability it can stumble and probably still win.

"They can be had: they've already lost twice," said Coach Jack Pardee, emphasizing his theme for the past week.

"We have to play the best we can because we expect them to play a consistent game, a good game. Their poor games are behind them.

"We have to get some turnovers. If we get a good pass rush and not let him (Terry Bradshaw) scramble and make him throw into our coverage, we can pick off some passes.

"The offense has to get some points because no one shuts them out. We have to avoid getting into long-yardage situations so they can't go to their pass rush and their nickel that much.

"We can't have the type game where we have to overcome too many turnovers. If we have too many mistakes, it won't be good. If we can keep to a couple of sacks and not have any more turnovers than that, then we will have a shot."

And that is the problem. The Redskin offense has not been productive the past four weeks and now they are coming off a loss to New Orleans in which the so-so Saints' front four recorded seven sacks against Theismann.

It is difficult to suddenly get healthy against the likes of Mean Joe Green, L. C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and the rest of the Steeler bullies.

"I think we can score," Pardee said. "We haven't gotten an easy touchdown in a long time. Last year, that was all we were getting. It would help to have an easy one, so we don't have to grind everything out."

Pittsburgh gives opponents chances to score quickly, as Cleveland proved three weeks ago. The Steelers will gamble on blitzes and single coverages and quick reads by Theismann could result in a long touchdown pass or two.

"I wouldn't want to add up the hours I've spent this week studying them," Theismann said. "They've been tough to prepare for. They do a little of everything. They show you a lot of defensive fronts and coverages.

"They love to double cover the wide receivers and let their linebackers take care of your running backs. It's unorthodox but they do it so well.

"Our ability to score is there. We certainly have come close enough. It's just a matter of finishing it off."

Theismann seems likely to try quick passes to his backs, attempting to control the ball and not let Bradshaw have a lot of shots against Washington's defense.

The Redskins, will toss a few new defensive wrinkles at the Steelers, who have shown an ability to overcome whatever a defense throws at them.

"Bradshaw is something," Theismann said. "He will put the ball into coverages because he has confidence his guys will bring ti down. It's not a high-percentage play but it works for them, so why not try it?"

The Redskins have had defensive success recently by keying on one or two players, such as Philadelphia's Wilbert Montgomery.

But on whom do you key against Pittsburgh? Bradshaw can have an off day and still get sufficient production from backs Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton. And receivers John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and Randy Grossman are so good it is difficult to double-team one and leave the others alone.

The Steelers most likely will try to run the ball up the heart of Washington's interior alignment. They are averaging nearly five yards a carry, the best in the NFL, and if they can't pick up big first-down yardage, Bradshaw's play-action passing will become even more dangerous.

"We can't let them have a lot on first downs," Dusek said. "It's essential for us to make them work for their yards."

Pardee says the Steelers use the least number of formations of any Redskin opponent. They are like the Old Boston Celtics. Everyone knows what plays they will run, but because of their execution and personnel, few can stop them consistently.

"They will throw and run about 50-50 on first down," Pardee said. "Our inside linemen will be double-teamed so the middle linebacker has to avoid blocks and make tackles. They trap the ends a lot so the safety has to have the right pursuit angle to stop long runs.

"There is nothing fancy or mysterious about them. I like our matchups and, if we play hard and execute, I like our chances."

Will 17 points be enough to beat them, he was asked.

"I wouldn't think so, not the way they score," he said. "But I don't want to get into that. We hope to score whatever it takes to win."

Pittsburgh, which has scored the second-most points in the league, will be matched up with a Redskin defense that has allowed the least number of points . . . Washington needs a big game out of Tony Peters, who has become the utility man in its defense . . . Theismann probably will try to pick on rookie cornerback Dwayne Woodruff.