"I don't like to sit and be passive; I like to attack. The way to win is to force the other guy to lose. If I was a basketball coach, I would press full-court all the time." -- Defensive Coordinator Richie Petitbon

One of the first moves Redskins defensive players make each week is to count the number of quarterback blitzes in the game plan.

"They like to go after the quarterback -- all players do," said Richie Petitbon, the former all-pro defensive back who directs the Redskins defense. "But that's good. They like to be active and we like to keep them active.

"It's something Clark Shaughnessy used to tell us when he was coaching defense with the Chicago Bears: don't let people practice against what they think you will do and then have them face the same things in games."

The Redskins are anything but stationary on defense. They stunt and dog and shift and change coverages from play to play and sometimes from moment to moment. They shuffle players in and out as frequently as any other team in the league. They are constantly trying to confuse opposing quarterbacks and force mistakes with a tactical approach Coach Joe Gibbs considers unique in the National Football League.

"Nobody else plays defense quite like we do," Gibbs said. "I know it gave me a lot of trouble when I was coaching at San Diego. The problem is, they do so many things that it's tough to prepare for them in a week. And then they give you looks you don't see that much, so you have problems in the game."

No one at Redskin Park is proclaiming this defense as the league's strongest. But there is no question the most surprising development on the team this season has been the improvement of the defense, which has carried the Redskins the last four weeks while the offense has struggled to add touchdowns to Mark Moseley's field goals.

Suddenly, opponents are having trouble scoring against a unit that at times in 1981 appeared incapable of stopping anyone.

"You look at our numbers (statistics)," Petitbon said, "and we aren't very impressive. We may be one of the best-kept secrets in the league, and I hope it stays that way. It must be hard for a team to prepare for somebody that ranks ninth in total defense in the conference. To me, those rankings never have meant a lot. The key is, we aren't giving up points."

The Redskins give up plenty of yardage, but only Dallas and the New York Giants have allowed fewer points (118) in the NFC. In three of the last four games, Washington has limited the opposition to 14 points or fewer. Against the Giants last Sunday, they yielded only 139 total yards, their fewest since Week 4 of the 1977 season. Opponents no longer run almost at will.

What makes this more remarkable is that the defense is starting two new cornerbacks, two virtual second-year ends, a second-year linebacker, a tackle one year removed from offense and just one No. 1 choice.

"Even when things weren't going good last year, I always thought we would be okay if we could get everyone healthy," Petitbon said. "Defense really requires coordination. The same people have to play each week to get the timing down. We've stayed healthy this year and we've matured."

Washington is one of the few remaining 4-3 teams in the league (most have three-man fronts). But it's what Petitbon, Linebacker Coach Larry Peccatiello and Line Coach Torgy Torgeson do with that alignment that makes the difference.

The Redskins lack the talent and quickness to play straight-up, man-against-man defense. Instead, they use a complex system of alignments and coverages to cover up weaknesses and highlight strengths.

Petitbon estimates his team has at least 30 blitzes, 40 secondary coverages and 35 line stunts. To make things more complex, no line stunt is tied to any blitz or coverage. All three work independently, with only the three coaches deciding from week to week how they tie together.

The staff added a new nickel alignment and a standard 3-4 defense this season. The latter has reduced the Redskins' 1981 vulnerability to long runs on second down.

"With the rules being what they are," Petitbon said, "you have to move a lot, especially by sending guys after the quarterback. Offensive linemen are holding, so you can't expect defensive linemen to supply the rush. You have to pick your spots, but you have to force things."

That philosophy is the key to the defense this season. The unit's goal since training camp has been increased aggressiveness. Gibbs wants every segment of his team to force the action, to be bold. So defensive players take risks, knowing that although occasional big offensive plays may result, they will cause turnovers.

The gradual maturing of the unit has made the aggressive approach more effective. As usual, free safety Mark Murphy, who also calls defensive signals, and middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz, another free agent, are the leading tacklers but they are getting more help.

Ends Dexter Manley and Mat Mendenhall last year were virtual rookie starters; this season, Manley is the team's best pass rusher and Mendenhall has become a dependable, consistent force against the rush. Linebacker Rich Milot, slowed in 1982 by injuries and problems stopping the run, is a standout, big and talented with all-star potential.

Strong safety Tony Peters snapped out of his former complacency and has set the tone for his teammates with his forceful tackling. Rookie Vernon Dean and veteran Jeris White, both much more physical than veterans Lemar Parrish and Joe Lavender were last season, have eased what could have been a difficult transition at cornerback. And tackle Dave Butz, always a rock against the run, is having what Petitbon describes as the best season in his 10-year career.

Not counting short-yardage situations, Washington will use 16 or 17 defensive players every game. Tony McGee, the veteran pass rusher obtained from New England at the start of the season, replaces Mendenhall on passing downs. Linebacker Monte Coleman comes in for Mel Kaufman on passing downs, as does a nickel cornerback (Lavender). Before he had to replace injured Perry Brooks, Darryl Grant was the nose guard in the 3-4. Larry Kubin is the extra linebacker in the same alignment.

"It's a lot easier to train people for specific duties than to train them for everything," Petitbon said. "And it keeps morale up. You get everyone involved. This is an age of specialization on offense, so why not on defense?"

Gibbs: "Last year, I was concerned on the sidelines whether we would be able to stop anyone. This year, they've proven they can. I hate to think where we'd be if the defense wasn't playing this good."