Ken Houston, the Redskins' much-honored veteran strong safety who has absorbed a lot of physical punishment through the first five weeks of the season, has been replaced in the starting lineup by Tony Peters.

Peters took over in the second half of last Sunday's game against Philadelphia and apparently will continue as a regular this Monday night at Denver.

Coach Jack Pardee said he planned to use both men against the Broncos "since they use two tight ends a lot. But Kenny is nicked up a bit and we'd like to give him a chance to heal.

"Kenny plays better now if he is healthy. But Tony has been hurt, too. They both have been hobbled. We need both of them."

Pardee acknowledged that Peters has been improving rapidly the last few weeks. The coach said Peters "really is a lot like Houston, but a little younger. He had good size, he covers well, he forces well. And he has good speed and a good forcer in the running game. He's just stronger and more durable than Kenny right now."

Houston, who is almost 36 and in his 14th pro campaign, had an outstanding preseason after sitting out the final games of the 1979 schedule with a fractured arm, the first major injury of his career. Peters finished last season as a starter after Houston was sidelined, and Houston said today that during training camp he realized Peters was a viable challenger for his job and that that knowledge gave him much-needed incentive. Although Houston has stopped short of saying this is his final year, team officials expect him to retire at the end of the season.

Houston has struggled since the opener against Dallas. He has had an assortment of ailments, including a slight concussion and a hyperextended elbow. He also has been beaten on three of the six touchdown passes the Redskins have surrendered and he leads the club in two contrasting categories: rmost tackles made and most tackles missed.

Washington, however, still tops the NFL in pass defense. The Redskins' veteran secondary has given up just 687 net yards, an average of 137 a game. And opponents are completing only 48 percent of their attempts.

But this change extends far beyond performance on the field. Houston, a quiet, dignified man, is the most respected leader on the roster. It is possibe this move could affect his teammates adversely, especially since Pardee has criticized the overall lack of leadership from his players this season.

"Everyone loves Kenny and no one is respected more around here than he is," said one teammate yesterday. "Everyone is kind of adapting a wait-and-see attitude about the whole thing. Everyone wants to win so badly that a lot of things are being done."

Even with this change, the Redskins are gaining some stability as more of their injured players return.

Yesterday, tackle George Starke went through his first workout since hurting his knee four weeks ago. He said the knee "felt good for the first time. I was happy with it. But I'd say it's still 50-50 that I can start (against Denver)."

Fullback Clarence Harmon, who was hobbled last week by a sprained ankle, ran at nearly full speed. But fullback Rickey Claitt still is slowed considerably by his sprained ankle, although he also practiced. Tight end Don Warren continues to improve and should be able to start Monday night despite what he described as "some soreness in the leg." tWarren has been out with a leg fracture.

"This is the healthiest we've been since before the last preseason game," Pardee said. "It was good to see all those familiar faces out there. A lot of them still aren't 100 percent, but we're making progress. I thought George moved pretty well, although he's still limited. The next few days will tell on him."

Pardee remains concerned about the health of guard Ron Saul, who has an injured calf and seems likely to miss this week's game. If he does, then veteran Dan Nugent will take his place.

The Redskins still haven't decided what player will fill the vacant roster spot created Wednesday by the waiving of guard Gary Anderson. Pardee says it probably will be either halfback Ike Forte or tackle Jerry Scanlan, although it appears he is leaning toward Forte, an accomplished special teams player. Both Forte and Scanlan are on the injured reserve list.

"We have too many people playing too many plays right now," Pardee said. "Like Art Monk was in for something like 90 plays last week. That's too many to keep him fresh. We'd like to get some more balance on the special teams so we can give more people a little break."

Peters is among the horde of Redskins fighting injuries all season. Since training camp, he has been hobbled by a leg pull and a sprained ankle and still isn't completely healed. He missed most of the Seattle game two weeks ago because of the sore ankle.

He was obtained by Washington 14 months ago from Cleveland for two draft choices. The former University of Oklahoma player appeared in all 14 games last season and was credited with 79 tackles, a sack, an interception and two forced fumbles. His best game came as a cornerback when he held Philadelphia's Harold Carmichael to one reception in a 17-7 Redskin win.

The man Peters is replacing is considered by many observers to be the greatest strong safety to ever play in the National Football League.

Houston has been selected to 12 straight Pro Bowls, including last year when he had the broken arm. Until that injury, he had played in 183 straight games, a streak he started with the Houston Oilers, who chose him on the ninth round of the 1967 draft after a standout career at Prairie View. Ironically, he probably would have retired after last season but he didn't want to end his career on such a down note.

He came to the Redskins in 1973 in one of George Allen's best deals. In exchange for Houston, the Oilers obtained Jim Snowden, Mack Alston, Jeff Severson, Cliff McNeil and Mike Fanucci.

During his distinguished career, Houston has intercepted 49 passes and has set the following NFL records: most career touchdowns on interceptions (nine), most touchdowns in a game on interceptions (two) and most touchdowns on interceptions in a season (four).