During the middle of last week, Defensive Coordinator Richie Petitbon reminded his group of Redskins they hadn't scored a touchdown this season, one of the few goals that unit had not fulfilled in nine games.

Now, Petitbon will have to find another inspirational selling point.

It took cornerback Jeris White less than eight minutes into yesterday's game to meet Petitbon's challenge. Midway through the first quarter, White stepped in front of Detroit's Billy Sims, intercepted a pass from Eric Hipple and returned it 77 yards for the game's first score.

"This game could have been in bad straits, it would have been one of those barn burners if we hadn't gotten the turnovers," said White, who had another interception later, accounting for two of Detroit's five giveaways. He now has a team-high five interceptions.

"No question about it, having an interception like that gets people up," White said. "It's a mental game, you get excited. It gives you momentum. Every time a defense scores, it gets the other team down. You get seven points behind and now you might have to change your game plan."

That's what happened to the Lions. They moved the ball smartly early in the game with a revised offense that threw the Redskins' defense off balance. But once they got behind, Washington was able to use its characteristic gambling, blitzing tactics to harass Hipple, even though Detroit piled up 364 total yards.

"Detroit went against every tendency that they had shown in previous games," safety Mark Murphy said. "They passed on first down, running against our nickel, they used screens against the nickel, they made adjustments in their routes. They moved the ball against us effectively, but once we got ahead, we could play their tendencies again."

Safety Tony Peters: "We want to dictate to offenses, not have them dictate to us. We want to be an offensive defense, so we can make things happen. We've got a positive feeling now that we can dominate and win."

The Redskins' aggressive secondary has picked off six passes the last two games after having only five in the first eight. Just as important, the defensive backs are starting to intimidate opponent receivers with their strong tackling.

"I think it's having an effect," said Murphy, who was responsible for a couple of crushing hits yesterday. "If you hit a guy hard the first time, he'll remember it the second time he runs the same route. Maybe they are hearing footsteps."

Coach Joe Gibbs said he purposely limited Joe Washington's play yesterday, hoping to rest the halfback's ailing knees for another week. Washington had one carry for nine yards and caught one pass for 15. He also twisted his left knee, which had surgery in September . . . Mike Nelms, whose 39-yard punt return was his longest of the season, badly bruised his right thigh. He had been plagued by a sore left thigh. "It hurts like heck right now," Nelms said. "But nothing is going to prevent me from playing next week" . . . The Redskins ran for 175 yards against a defense rated No. 1 against the rush in the NFC . . . Gibbs gave the Redskins a day off today, so they could watch NFC playoff games.