The Redskins will activate linebacker Rich Milot today, a move aimed at strengthening their nickel defense for Sunday's game against the Cowboys in Dallas.

Milot has been on the in-season injury list since hurting the ligaments in his right knee against Miami Oct. 18. But he practiced every day this week and impressed the staff with his mobility.

"We really thought Rich would be a week away," Linebacker Coach Larry Peccatiello said. "But he's looked very good to me out there. He's moving well and he doesn't look that rusty at all. We wanted to make sure he was ready before we brought him back and now we are sure about it."

By activating Milot, the Redskins will use the last of their three alloted moves off the in-season injury list. Any other players would have to clear waivers before being brought back.

But with Mel Kaufman out for at least four weeks with a separated shoulder, the Redskins had little choice but to turn to Milot, who has been a regular nickel linebacker (along with Monte Coleman) the last two years. If Milot couldn't have played, rookie Quentin Lowry would have replaced Kaufman.

Milot also was a starter this season until he was hurt, but Coleman and Brad Dusek will remain the regular outside linebackers for this game.

Milot said his knee "feels really good, better than I thought it would. I was a little apprehensive at first but not anymore. There is no pain and I don't have any trouble moving on it. I think I can play either in the nickel or against the run. And I'm also in better condition now than before I got hurt."

The Redskins' ability to defense the Dallas running backs on pass patterns could be a major factor. Fullback Ron Springs is the Cowboys' leading receiver with 36 catches and halfback Tony Dorsett is third with 28.

Milot's unanticipated progress was the only good news Coach Joe Gibbs saw from yesterday's final practice for Dallas. It was a ragged workout, especially on offense, and Gibbs wasn't happy.

"I can't explain why we wouldn't practice well and I don't know what to read into it," he said. "It just wasn't a good one, let it go at that. The one thing that bothered me was they seemed hesitant to have any contact. You have to hope they were saving it for Sunday. Otherwise, that's not very good."

But his players downplayed any effect the practice would have on the game. They seemed loose and confident, although the atmosphere at Redskin Park still isn't reminiscent of the days when this rivalry was at its peak.

"The young players still don't know what a Dallas week means," tackle George Starke said. "For me, it's the same. I don't like them and I always look forward to playing them. But mostly it's been a low-key, even week, the same way the young guys have approached games the last six weeks."

Said safety Tony Peters: "Things have been loose, but there is a sense of where we are and what we have to do to win. No one has tightened up or anything. That hasn't changed, and that's just the way it should be."

"Why get up-tight about it?" guard Russ Grimm asked. "We've all stayed relaxed instead of sitting down and getting all tense about it. That wouldn't do any good. We all think we can win, but the only way to do that is to make sure we play well on Sunday and not mess it up by doing something foolish in midweek."

Cornerback Lemar Parrish is the only regular who will not play. Otherwise, only receiver Virgil Seay (hamstring) might not be available among the other 44 active players. And Seay is improved enough that he could see spot duty.

"I'd have to say this is the best we've been physically since the first game of the season," Gibbs said. "I just wish we had Lemar, we could use him. But most games recently, we'd really only have 39 or 40 players available. It's nice to see some more bodies out there."

The Cowboys are saying that defensive tackle John Dutton (deep thigh bruise) probably won't play. If he doesn't, Larry Bethea will start. Tackle Pat Donovan (groin pull) remains listed as questionable but there is more optimism about his availability . . . Guard Melvin Jones, who has been slowed by a pinched nerve in his neck, has received extra work this week at right guard, where Ron Saul is limping from a broken small toe. Jones was the starter at that spot before hurting his neck . . . The Redskins will decide today which player has to be dropped to make room for Milot. They used their first two moves this season to activate Dusek and Wilbur Young.