Nothing rankles Joe Gibbs more than to have the two-tight-end offense the Redskins will use against New England today described as "conservative."

"It's soooo conservative," Gibbs said with a touch of sarcasm as he discussed his plans for the 1 p.m. game at RFK Stadium (WRC-TV-4). "What a joke. We used it almost 100 percent of the time from midseason on at San Diego last season. It became our basic, bread-and-butter alignment. It's the most flexible formation you can have in football today."

The two-tight-end, one-running-back alignment was introduced a month ago as an emergency measure, but Gibbs said it will remain as the team's standard formation.

Of course, the 1-6 Redskins haven't matched San Diego's production from the new set. Gibbs has chosen to run the ball more, utilizing the talents of Joe Washington and John Riggins. But he also doesn't have the depth and quickness at wide receiver that he enjoyed with the Chargers. And he doesn't have a tight end here with the receiving abilities of Kellen Winslow, either.

But Gibbs slowly is opening things up. He has inserted Rich Caster, his best pass-catching tight end, as a regular today. And he has benched receiver Ricky Thompson, replacing him with Virgil Seay, the 5-foot-7 sprinter who is getting his first NFL start. Terry Metcalf, who was moved this week from halfback to the outside, also will be used in Thompson's spot, according to Gibbs.

"We need to get more point production from the yards we are making," Gibbs said. "We also need to keep practicing ball control. I feel our best chance of winning right now is to limit our turnovers and put together some long marches.

"People don't realize that since we've gone to two tight ends, our passing percentage is something like 70 percent. I'm just disappointed that we haven't gotten more points out of it. When you run as well as we have and pass that accurately, you should score."

Last week against Miami, Gibbs hoped the two-tight-end set would function well enough to put his defense in a spot to win the game. But now, with his defensive line and linebackers limping badly, the offense has to play a more aggressive role.

Despite their 2-5 record, the Patriots have had no trouble moving the ball this season and are favored by three points. New England has gained at least 436 yards the last four weeks and is averaging 24 points a game, even with 19 interceptions. In one half alone against the Jets, quarterback Steve Grogan, who has regained his starting job from Matt Cavanaugh, threw for 330 yards.

However, opponents also have had little trouble with the New England defense, especially on the ground. Until they held Earl Campbell to 86 yards last Sunday, the Patriots had been surrendering 219 rushing yards a game.

Does that mean Washington fans will see nothing but Riggins up the middle and Washington around end today?

"Our runners are our most productive players," Gibbs responded, "so naturally we are going to use them. But we need some more big plays, whether we get them from running or passing or special teams. We tried for some big gainers against Miami last week; they just didn't work. But don't think we have given up trying to go after people."

The Redskin defense is hardly ready for a shootout with New England. Outside linebackers Monte Coleman and Brad Dusek both are playing with bad shoulders, defensive end Mat Mendenhall is starting despite a gimpy knee and tackle Wilbur Young still has a sore toe. And they'll be trying to improve an already spotty pass rush against one of the NFL's better offensive lines.

But the Patriots, the league's biggest early season flop along with Oakland, aren't healthy, either. Cornerback Mike Haynes is out with a collapsed lung, fullback Sam Cunningham is hobbled with a leg pull and Steve Nelson, their best linebacker, is on injured reserve.

Gibbs' original decision to go with a standard two-back pro set at the start of the season probably ranks as the most glaring mistake he has made in his short head-coaching career.

He's much more comfortable with the two-tight-end formation, and believes in it completely. But he felt a two-back offense was better suited to his backfield depth.

"I was wrong," he said. "I just like the two-tight-end operation better. When we had all of our backs injured, we were forced to switch from the two-back set to the one-back set. Now we are running the ball better, we haven't committed as many mistakes and we are much more balanced.

"Why is it better? First of all, it gives you two strong blockers (the tight ends) on either side, which helps your running game and your pass protection. Second, you have four receivers right at the line of scrimmage to get out into patterns quickly. Third, you can change formations out of it so easily by sending people in motion, which hurts the defense.

"Even without motion, the strong safety has to take one tight end and that means someone, like the free safety, has to take the other tight end. The free safety can't double-team as well that way, and it opens things up for passing.

"The teams we've played already have admitted what I know. They said we are the hardest around to prepare for. That doesn't sound like we are conservative at all."

The Redskins activated rookie linebacker Quentin Lowry yesterday and waived quarterback Mike Rae.