Mike Nelms, the National Football Conference's kick returner in the Pro Bowl last year, is the one player the Redskins expect to give them good field position each time he touches the ball.

Since joining Washington as a free agent last year, Nelms had fielded 96 kickoffs and punts flawlessly until a fumble last Sunday against the Giants. Of his 52 punt returns, 23 were for 11 or more yards with a long gain of 64. Of his 40 kickoff returns, 13 were more than 25 yards with a long gain of 51.

But these days, Nelms can only think about that dropped punt, a mistake that played a major role in the Redskin defeat. He was playing against the Giants wearing a cast to protect his right thumb, broken in the final exhibition game against New England three weeks ago.

"I guess I made the mistake of forgetting I had this cast on," said Nelms, following yesterday's 2 1/2-hour workout at Redskin Park. "I played as though everything was normal.

"I could have let it go (in the end zone) or fair-caught it."

The lost fumble hardly dimmed Nelms' confidence or enthusiasm for returning kicks. Not long after that mistake, he handled Dave Jennings' punt and returned it 17 yards.

Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs said he doesn't regret using Nelms last week and will probably put him in for a few plays this week.

"The other returners weren't having that much success holding the ball and, since Mike is our best returner, I felt he could do the job with the cast," Gibbs said. "I was willing to try him. I'm not sure how much we'll use him, but he will be back there in some situations."

Should Nelms not play against the Cardinals, Gibbs will use Terry Metcalf and/or Virgil Seay to return kicks. Metcalf, one of the best kick returners in the game while playing with St. Louis 1973-77, returned three kickoffs Sunday for 58 yards and one punt for two.

Having Metcalf return all of the kicks against his former teammates might be in the best interests of the Redskins. Metcalf left the Cardinals in a contract dispute and signed to play in Canada three years before coming here. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound halfback would love nothing better than several long runs against St. Louis.

"I said it was critical we beat the Giants because we didn't want to lose two straight at home," Gibbs said. "Well, we did. Every one we lose now is critical. We have to show some progress, get back to the level of play we showed in preseason. The Cardinals lost to two unbeaten teams and must feel good about playing us. They probably feel we aren't playing well and will be cranked up for us."

Washington leads the NFC in total defense, allowing only 503 total yards. The Redskins are first in passing defense and 11th in rushing defense . . . Washington ranks seventh among NFC teams in total offense, first in passing but last in rushing. Washington has won five straight in St. Louis. The last time they lost there was in 1975 overtime game best remembered for Mel Gray's controversial touchdown catch.