This week, as the Dallas coaches watch films of last December's halfback Preston Pearson kept beating a Washington rookie linebacker on pass patterns out of the shotgun formation.

"I feel like I lost that game, the way he kept picking on me," said that young Redskin, Monte Coleman. "I'm also sure that they'll go after me again. They'd be crazy not to."

But two things have changed since that game, which Pearson helped win with two second half receptions against Coleman.

Pearson, much to the relief of the Redskins, has been placed on injured reserve, so he won't be playing Monday night in RFK Stadium.

And Coleman no longer is the inexpecrienced rookie who lived in the offseason with nightmares of that December loss.

Instead, he is on the verge of becoming a bona fide professional star. The Redskins knew last season he was a terrific find, but even they couldn't envision how quickly he has developed. He had the best training camp of anyone in on the squad and now has become so good at so many things that Coach Jack Paradee doesn't want to limit his versatility by starting him.

But, Coleman wants to start. And he sees Monday night as a way to make it next to impossible for the coaches not to promote him to first string.

"It's very important to me personally to be a starter," he said. "I mean, even if I dont, I'll play the same but I won't be satisfied until someone is trying to beat me out instead of always having someone ahead of me on the depth chart.

"If I have a really good game, I might have a starting position after that, whether it's on the left or right side. And besides, I've got to make up for what happened to me when we played them last time."

Coleman could well get the starting nod for the Cowboys by default. Brad Dusek is coming off a bad leg pull and did not play in any preseason games. Paradee thinks Dusek can play Monday night, but he doesn't know for how long or how well.

When Coleman is in the game, the Cowboys will see a linebacker much improved over the 1979 model that was licked so throughly by the clever Pearson, one of the best in the business at catching third down passes out of the backfield.

Coleman has maintained his impressive physical skills (4.45 speed in the 40, 375-pound bench press), while increasing his range, his savvy and his confidence. He has become a 235-pound mixture of muscle and talent who kept making play after play in camp and preseason games, delighting his coaches.

Pardee is convinced he has a future all-pro on his hands. The question now has become, how to use Coleman to the best advantage of the team?

Pardee believes Coleman is most effective now when he is spotted throughout a game instead of carrying a full load. That way, he can continue to play on the special teams -- "he's the best special teams player in the league," said an assistant coach, John Hilton -- while also concentrating on his nickel and long yardage pass coverages.

"Monte will play a lot," Pardee said, "so what does it matter if he starts?Is that more important, or is it getting 40 to 45 plays a game?

"We don't want to use him so much that we wear him down. Putting him in on running downs doesn't prove anything. This is a specialized sport, not a marathon.

"It's very tempting to make him a starter. In almost every team meeting, we talk about him. How can we get the most out of Monte Coleman? We talk about starting him, but we like the way we are using him now.

"Third down is where your defense stops the other guy. That's the important down and we want Monte fresh enough to be effective in those situations."

No other Redskin linebacker covers pass receivers as well, a standing Cole maintained even after the Pearson debacle.

"He's going to get beat on coverages," Paradee said, "but not that often. He's learning every day. He played well in the exhibition games, but his best game was the last one against Tampa Bay. With Brad being out, Monte got an awful lot of work in this camp. He's come a long, long way."

Remember, this is the same Coleman who never played high school football, who was a safety three years at Central Arkansas and who lasted until the 11th round of the 1979 draft because scouts thought he was too small (at 205 pounds) for a linebacker and not fast enough for the secondary.

The Redskins thought last year, once he had won a roster spot with a stunning training camp showing, that he would have to undergo an extensive learning process. Instead, he was alternating with Pete Wysocki at one line backer position by midway through the season. Not until that season ending game against Dallas, and his meeting with Pearson, did Coleman's star dim slightly.

"I was like a young boxer going against a real experienced guy," Coleman said of that long day. "I knew how to throw the first punch but not the second. He just knew more than I did.

"Now it would be different. I just drop back, get more depth on my coverage and he'd run right to me."

Coleman has been grooming himself for months for a rematch against Dallas. All that time in the weight room, all those long days in the Carlisle training camp were geared to making sure he wasn't embarassed again.

"I'm really sorry that pearson won't be playing," Coleman said. "He's best. It would have been a way for me to measure myself, to see how far I have come. I feel I'm better, I am more confident and I have a better grasp of the defense. I was ready for him."

Instead of Pearson, Coleman will be shadowing a rookie, James Jones, out of the backfield when the Cowboys go into the shotgun. Coleman becomes a starter. He is trying not to grow impatient, but he fears he will become stereotyped as special teams player, something he wants to avoid.

"After three or four years, if you don't start, then you'll be a special teams player for the rest of your career," he said."That's the way they will look at you.

"I don't want that. I'm trying not to rush things, but I have my own goals.My main one is to start, as soon as I can."