The Redskin defense doesn't have much of a pass rush and surrenders long plays and lengthy drives. Only one starting linebacker is completely healthy.

Yet each week, this unit remains atop the NFC rankings, ahead of such recognized defensive powers as Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles. "Considering everything, I'm surprised we've managed to do so well," said Defensive Coordinator Richie Petitbon.

The Redskins are smart enough not to boast about their defensive statistics. They know they aren't overpowering, they know they are unlikely to shut anyone out and they know they haven't reached a stage where they need to find a catchy nickname.

But that still hasn't prevented Coach Joe Gibbs from asking his defense to carry the club until the offensive line heals.

Gibbs, who came to Washington preaching aggressive offense, says he has a simple game plan for the Miami Dolphins Sunday in the Orange Bowl (4 p.m., WDVM-TV-9): let the defense win it. And that means trying to cut down on offensive mistakes as much as possible by playing ball control.

"We have to depend on our defense to play well and put us in a position to win games," Gibbs said. "The offensive line is so beat up that it's hard to have continuity every week. You get too fancy and you open the way for breakdowns. We've been injured before, but this week it's the worst yet.

"We don't want to make turnovers that puts our defense in bad spots. So that means we need to hold onto the ball. We want to control the clock as much as we can by putting together some long drives. That'll keep the defense rested."

Holding back on offense against a Miami team favored by seven points goes against Gibbs' basic coaching philosophy. He isn't about to become another Woody Hayes, so the Redskins still will throw the ball, especially since the Dolphin secondary has been the major reason the team has surrendered 1,514 yards the last three weeks. Rookie cornerback Fulton Walker proved especially vulnerable against Buffalo Monday night.

But unless Washington falls behind, Gibbs most likely will attack the Dolphins much as he did the Chicago Bears last week, using short tosses to his backs and tight ends, mixed with the running of Joe Washington and John Riggins.

Those are all safe plays, compared with more risky downfield passes to his wide receivers, who had only three receptions against the Bears. But the Dolphin defense also is stronger up front than Chicago's, which couldn't handle the bulky Redskin offensive line. If Miami cuts off the run, quarterback Joe Theismann will have no other choice than to open things up.

Gibbs and Petitbon would welcome an early Washington lead. As the Bears discovered, the Redskins play their best when opponents are forced to pass frequently against their secondary, the defense's strength.

But let the Dolphins vary their plays, let backs Andrea Franklin, Tony Nathan and Tommy Vigorito have running room, let quarterback David Woodley (returning from a rib injury) pull off some college option plays and the Washington defense doesn't have the personnel to hold up.

"The offense has had so many injuries that people forget we've had our problems, too," Petitbon said. "Our front four is hurting right now. Perry Brooks has a broken thumb, but he probably will have to start because Wilbur Young has a sore toe. Mat Mendenhall's knee isn't right, so Dexter Manley has to start with his sore ankle.

"We just need to have the same 11 guys for a couple of weeks in a row. Then we can do everything we want to do. We can become more aggressive, more offensive on defense by blitzing and using stunts. And the injuries have hurt our substitution defense. We haven't been able to keep people as fresh as we'd like."

Whatever pass rush the Redskins have generated this season has come mostly from Petitbon's beloved blitzing tactics. Now that two of his best players, cornerback Lemar Parrish and linebacker Monte Coleman, are starting again after recovering from injuries, Petitbon probably will gamble even more. Coleman, who has been out with a fractured shoulder, had a bad cold late this week but is expected to play.

Miami might prove difficult to fool, despite Woodley's inexperience. Until they lost to Buffalo, the Dolphins were one of the league's major surprises.

Miami's rushing attack has been hindered by injuries, although everyone tries to run on the Redskins, hurt or not. But give Woodley time to pass and he can be very effective throwing to wide receivers Duriel Harris and Nat Moore.

Buffalo exposed the Dolphins' weak linebacker coverage 10 yards down the field. But Miami, which developed a pass rush this year by using A.J. Duhe at linebacker and Kim Bokamper at defensive end, is certain to try to hurry quarterback Joe Theismann by trying to confuse the Redskin line with blitzes of its own.

Gibbs will start the game with a makeshift line of Mark May and Joe Jacoby at tackle, Ron Saul (for Melvin Jones) and Russ Grimm at guard and Jeff Bostic at center. Tackle George Starke, who has a broken right hand, is available for spot duty.

"I just want us to keep making progress," said Gibbs. "We looked better against the Bears and I want to build on that. We need to keep playing with confidence."

Dan Henning, a Dolphin assistant coach last year and now Gibbs' chief aide, has been tutoring both the offensive and defensive staffs this week about Miami's tendencies . . . Miami will be without starting cornerback Don McNeal.