Mike Nelms, last season's Pro Bowl return specialist, brought back a third-quarter punt 54 yards for a touchdown tonight to offset an abundance of subpar plays by his teammates and pull out Washington's third straight preseason victory, 13-7, over the Baltimore Colts.

Nelms had another touchdown return nullified in the first half by a penalty, but his third-period score featured nothing but nifty running and fine blocks.

The Redskins also got two field goals from Mark Moseley in an otherwise sloppily played game before 44,937, the second largest preseason crowd in Colts history.

The Baltimore partisans had hoped for the Colts' first exhibition victory this summer. Instead they were treated to a contest that both teams tried to give away.

Coach Mike McCormack let quarterback Bert Jones play until the fourth period. But when he got horse-collared by rookie Dexter Manley on a cruel sack -- Manley was called for roughing -- McCormack quickly sent in backup Greg Landry. Jones returned for one more play, a fourth and six pass at the Redskin 31, but that attempt fell incomplete after Jones was pressured by a blitzing Rich Milot.

Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs had praised his team two days ago for its smart play during the last part of training camp. He wasn't nearly as happy after this one, in which his team was penalized 11 times -- Baltimore refused five -- and dropped a half-dozen passes.

"We certainly weren't smooth," Gibbs said. "There were lots of mistakes.I'm not happy about the execution. We couldn't catch the ball at all. But I thought the defense played well."

In addition to the nullified Nelms touchdown, receiver Art Monk dropped a Joe Theismann pass at the goal line to lose another score, and a 47-yard screen pass to Wilbur Jackson that moved the ball to the Colt 12 was brought back because of a holding call on tackle George Starke.

To give Gibbs more cause for worry, his offensive line was hit by another injury.Guard Russ Grimm left in the second period with a sprained ankle, forcing the Redskins to play inexperienced rookies Darryl Grant and Lee Spivey at guard for about half the game.Spivey just joined the team on Tuesday.

In the second half, Jerry Scanlan was used at guard, just five days after undergoing minor knee surgery. Melvin Jones, normally a guard starter, was held out with a sore Achilles tendon.

Gibbs said he was "very concerned" about Grimm's status. "It looks bad but I don't know how long he'll be out," he said. Jones is expected to be ready for the last preseason game against New England next Sunday.

Theismann, who had been exceptionally sharp in the first two games, struggled in this one. He was five of 16 for just 37 yards before being replaced, as planned, by Mike Rae in the second quarter. Theismann also was hardly helped by the dropped passes.

This was not the exciting Redskins team of the last two weekends. Every time they would try to get going, a good defensive play or their own mistakes stopped them. They couldn't even catch wide open passes for interceptions.

Baltimore's first possession illustrates how things went for Washington all night.

The Redskins were called for three penalties in the Colts' drive, including a pass interference penalty on strong safety Tony Peters that gave Baltimore a first down at the Washington six. On the next down, end Karl Lorch jumped offside and the Colts had possession at the three. Two plays later, rookie Randy McMillan scored from the one for a 7-0 lead.

Washington had only 187 total yards, including only 59 on the ground, where the club previously had shown well. But other than Wilbur Jackson, who continues to impress, running backs Joe Washington, John Riggins and Terry Metcalf didn't have much success against a remade Baltimore defense.

Jackson gained 61 yards on 10 carries. The other three backs combined for 31 yards on 13.

Jones and Landry combined for 163 passing yards, but the Redskin front four had success putting pressure on the Baltimore quarterbacks, although missed tackles kept the sack total to only three.

Gibbs, trying to sort out his personnel along that defensive line, used ends Fred Cook and Mat Mendenhall and tackles Perry Brooks, Pat Ogrin and Wilbur Young for long stretches. Of the nine defensive linemen, only seven probably will survive the final cut and such veterans as Young, Brooks and Cook are being pressed for roster spots.

The game also marked the last step in Brad Dusek's comeback from back surgery in April. The veteran linebacker played briefly in the second period and made a tackle. It was his first contact work since the operation. Another linebacker, Larry Kubin, and defensive end Mat Mendenall also saw their first action of the preseason.

And the Redskins saw a familiar face on the other side of the field: linebacker Dallas Hickman, who was cut by Washington Monday. Baltimore picked up Hickman off waivers Friday.

After the opening touchdown, the Colts only threatened late in the game. The Redskins pressed constantly but were held off by their own mistakes.

In the first quarter, cornerback Jeris White, playing for the injured Lemar Parrish, slammed into running back Zachary Dixon and forced a fumble, which Brooks recovered on the Colt 11. But Monk dropped the pass by Theismann, playing his first game since it was revealed he and the Redskins have contract problems. Moseley then kicked a 30-yard field goal to cut the lead to 7-3.

Just before that possession, ex-Redskin Mike Bragg punted to Nelms, whose dandy return covered 59 yards and finished up in the Baltimore end zone. But Rickey Claitt was calaled for pushing Hickman from behind on the play, which was nullified.

Moseley later kicked a 51-yard field goal after an interception by Baltimore's Bruce Laird was offset by penalties on both teams.

The Colts still were ahead, 7-6, early in the third when Bragg once again punted toward Nelms, waiting alone at midfield.

He fielded the punt on the run and burst past the first wave of Baltimore tacklers. He shook off two more tackles, then used a final block by Metcalf to gain entrance into the end zone. Moseley's conversion made it 13-7.

Mike Rae, making his first appearance as a Redskin, and Tom Flick both played quarterback after Theismann. They had their good moments, although they too couldn't avoid the penalty-dropped ball problems of their teammates.

The Colts looked as if they had a chance to pull out the victory late in the fourth after Manley's roughing the passer penalty gave them good field position.

But McCormack irritated the fans with the way he treated Landry during that drive. On a fourth and six, McCormack found he had no messengers to carry in the play. Jones volunteered and replaced Landry as the fans booed. When Jones' pass fell short, the fans really opened up.

Earlier, the Redskin rooters in the crowd cheered when Gibbs went for a fourth and inches from his own 35. Rae leaped over the middle of the line for the first down. But moments later, in a similar situation, he called for a punt.

Gibbs thought the only serious injury was to Grimm. Young hurt his shoulder, receiver Charlie Brown bruised a knee, linebacker Mel Kauffmann hurt an ankle and linebacker Neal Olkewicz jammed a thumb.

"We're going to have games like this during the season," Gibbs said. "I just hope that they turn out the same way for us."