After six struggling weeks full of chaos and heartbreak, the Redskins finally had some fun yesterday. They found an opponent they could manhandle -- and what they did to the St. Louis Cardinals could prove to be their springboard back to respectability.

Whatever Washington tried against the beleaguered Cards in the 23-0 victory worked more successfully than even the coaching staff could have imagined. This was the Redskin team of last season, the one that almost made the playoffs, and not the penalty-plagued, inconsistent bunch that had lost four straight games.

The tentative greeting the RFK Stadium crowd gave the squad at the beginning of the game had turned into boisterous cheering by the end of the first half, and for good reason. By then, Washington had its 23-point lead and was enroute to, by far, its most impressive game of the season, even considering how poorly St. Louis played.

This was a day the Redskins, who had not scored a touchdown in RFK in two earlier games this year, could be bullies, and they took full advantage of the opportunity.

The offense rolled up a season-high 453 yards as quarterback Joe Theismann, utilizing an assortment of play calls, had the best game, statistically, of his career. He passed for a personal high of 307 yards, completing 21 of 31 attempts for two touchdowns, including a nifty 36-yarder to wide receiver Ricky Thompson. Yet Theismann had such good protection and his targets were so wide open that it did not seem he was gaining that many yards.

But this wasn't Theismann's day alone. Remember the defense that allowed Seattle's Jim Jodat to gain 117 yards three weeks ago? That same defense, employing an overshift formation for the first time to take advantage of the Cards' injury-riddled line, held standout back Ottis Anderson to a mediocre 43 yards on 17 carries and forced quarterback Jim Hart to throw much more than he had intended.

And that is just what Washington wanted. The Redskins had blitzed little the first six games en route to a 1-5 record. But yesterday they decided to become much more aggressive. They went after Hart with linebackers Monte Coleman and Rich Milot and wound up with six sacks, one fewer than they had racked up entering the game.

"That was the worse pounding I've had in at least the last two years, maybe more," Hart said in the quiet Cardinal locker room. Hart still threw for 200 yards, but missed on 19 of his 32 passes against a hard-hitting secondary.

"This was fun," said Milot, the designated middle linebacker on passing situations. "It was what we needed we had to have a boost like this. Their line was hurting and we took advantage of it. But it's great to be unleashed and just go after the quarterback."

Some of the joy could be diminished later this week when the team receives the medical reports on defensive end Coy Bacon's right knee. He will undergo an examination today on the knee, which he had drained earlier this week. He did not play the second half yesterday.

Bacon was around long enough to join in on the humiliation of the Cards. He had a sack and forced a fumble in the first half while the St. Louis line, which had two new guards and only one preseason starter, tried to figure out Washington's oveshifted defense.

Before the snap, the Redskin front four would move into an uneven alignment and middle linebacker. Neil Olkewicz would line up opposite one of the Cardinal guards instead of the center.

"That cut down on their ability to trap us, like teams have been doing," Olkewicz said. "It hindered my pursuit a little but their new guards (Ron Coder and Barney Cotton) probably were confused by it. There just weren't any holes for Anderson to run through."

The Cardinals came out using a two-tight-end offense, but Anderson, averaging 92 yards a game, was limited to 18 the first half and fumbled away the ball once. St. Louis kept winding up with third and long, allowing Washington to employ the second part of its defensive tactics, the blitz.

After punting the first time they had the ball, the Cardinals ended their next six possessions in the opening half on a fumble, an interception (the first of two by cornerback Jeris White) and sacks. The Redskins dumped the 36-year-old Hart four times before intermission, three times when St. Louis was in Washington territory.

"This is really the first time we've been able to use our nickel (defense) the way we've wanted to," Coach Jack Pardee said. "We got them in a lot of third-and-long plays and we could go after them."

Previously, teams had run so well on Washington they could use the pass as almost a secondary weapon. But not this time.

The improvement by the defense came at just the right moment. Theismann and the offense already had been showing more consistency the last two weeks, and yesterday the offense hit full throttle. Except for one interception on a tipped pass, the Redskins kept away from the killing mistakes and penalties that had frustrated them so much in the first five games.

"I'd roll inside and outside and then drop back and they didn't know what to expect from me," said a happy Theismann. "We really mixed up our plays and kept them off balance. And this was the best protection the line has given me. Give them the credit."

This was a Redskin team that passed, for a change, on first down. And one that protected Theismann, who had been sacked 10 times, from being tackled even once. And one that kept overwhelming the Cardinal linebackers with short passes that turned into long gainers.

We've been playing better offensively the last few weeks but not good enough," Thompson said. "Now we know we can play a game without having all those mistakes at the wrong time. This reminded me so much of last year. Nothing spectacular, but we did everything right. And look what happened."

Certainly Theismann's passing yardage was spectacular, but he accumulated it in most unspectacular fashion. Take away Thompson's touchdown garb, a 45-yard gain by Clarence Harmon (on a five-yard pass) and a 35-yarder by tight end Don Warren and Theismann nickel and dimed the Cards into confusion.

Harmon, in particular, played impressively. He ran for 57 yards -- seven fewer than Wilbur Jackson -- and caught four passes for 58 yards, the second straight week he has gained more than 100 yards combined in those two categories.

He also registered two touchdowns, on a four-yard pass for Washington's first score and on a 20-yard dash off a simple off-tackle play that ended the Redskins' scoring with 23 seconds to go in the second period.

When Harmon was covered, Thiesmann turned to rookie Art Monk, who pulled in six passes for 85 yards, mostly against tough coverage, or Jackson, who had four receptions for 33 yards. St. Louis just wasn't up to shutting down all of Theismann's choices.

Pardee should have realized this was his team's day from the time the Redskins took the opening kickoff and drove 66 yards for what proved to be the winning touchdown on the pass to Harmon. After a sack by Bacon on the Card's ensuing series, Mark Moseley kicked a 30-yard field goal (he was one of two for the game). And after the second of two Milot sacks, Theismann caught St. Louis in a defensive mixup. The Cardinals tried to cover Monk down the left sideline and Warren up the middle and left Thompson all alone down the right sideline.

"I lost the ball in the sun for a while," Thompson said about the 36-yard scoring pass. "It scared the fire out of me because I knew I was wide open. But I saw it when it came down within the stadium." He pulled in the ball at the five and dove into the end zone. Add in Harmon's touchdown romp after a White interception and Washington had its best point output of the season.

"I looked out there and saw St. Louis playing just like we were a few weeks ago," Olkewicz said. "We took advantage of it, just like teams took advantage of it, just like teams took advantage of us. Things have come full circle, I guess. But maybe we can build off this one. There is no reason why we can't keep winning from now on."

Backup cornerback Ray Waddy broke a leg in the first half and will be out the rest of the season. Tackle Terry Hermeling tore ligaments in his left thumb and sat out the second half, while center Bob Kuziel sprained his right wrist and linebacker Pete Wysocki sprained a knee.