These have not been the easiest of times for Richie Petitbon, coach of the Washington Redskins defense. He is the former Over the Hill Gang safety who is trying to keep the Redskins' troubled defense from going over the edge.

"If the situation stays like it is, we'll go through some learning problems," said Petitbon, 45. "Yes, I am concerned."

Concerned, but not changed. They say Petitbon is from the old school and, since he's been in the NFL the last 24 years (10 as a coach), perhaps they are right. As a player, he defended offenses that moved like covered wagons. As a coach, he defends offenses that move like spaceships.

Redskins veteran left cornerback Jeris White is unsigned and holding out. And, several weeks ago, Petitbon had to rise from the breakfast table to lead federal agents to the dormitory room of Tony Peters, the Redskins' Pro Bowl strong safety.

Peters was handcuffed, charged with drug trafficking and Petitbon now says, "It was so sad. For me, it's really had a numbing effect."

Last year, Petitbon's defense gave up 128 points in the regular season, best in the league, making him feel like Ben Hur, riding a golden chariot. Now, he has two young players--strong safety Ken Coffey (who sat out last season with a blood disorder) and rookie left cornerback Darrell Green--in his secondary, replacing his veterans.

He feels like the wheels have fallen off his chariot, for awhile anyway, although the situation may be helped by the acquisition tonight of third-year cornerback Anthony Washington from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"We're playing with a short stick. Look at our nickel (pass) defense from last year. We've lost three of those guys (White, Peters and retired veteran cornerback Joe Lavender)," said Petitbon. "That's a 60 percent loss. That's a tremendous loss . . . I'm very pleased with Coffey and Green. But they are babies. People can't lose this perspective of that. They will make mistakes."

Petitbon was born and raised in New Orleans; his French-born father worked as a cashier at the city newspaper. He learned about perspective the day he realized, "When you grow up in New Orleans you don't realize there is an outside world--until you leave."

He is a former all-conference quarterback at Tulane, who played safety for the Chicago Bears (1959-68), Los Angeles Rams (1969-70) and George Allen's Redskins (1971-72), winning the title with the Bears in '63, making the Pro Bowl four times, realizing in the end, "I don't think the fans in Washington really knew me as a player. I came here right at the end and I was hurt (he only played the first three games of the 1972 Super Bowl season).

"But the fans in Chicago probably associate my name with being the best safety they ever had."

Petitbon has designed a defense full of movement and gambles and complexities, reversing the football commandment of "defense reacts to offense," and gaining his players' respect.

"When (Coach Jack) Pardee was here it was wait for the (opposing) offense, then react," said Dave Butz, veteran defensive tackle. "Now, it's react on the move."

Petitbon is always flashing sideline signals to free safety Mark Murphy, instructing which defensive alignment to take. "We'd make a great charades team," Murphy said.

To which Petitbon said, "Veterans are not important. Smart people are important.

"We don't let the (opposing) offense dictate to us where we play . . . Our goal at the line of scrimmage is to gamble. We don't mind giving up the 30-, 40-yard runs as long as we get enough second and 12s. You can put defenses on offense. The more different things we do, the more preparation problems it gives the (opposing) offense."

Petitbon is a man of supreme confidence, respected enough to have been contacted for possible head coaching jobs "about five times, directly or indirectly" and positive enough to think, "Let me put it this way, when or if I see a (head coaching) job that I'd like to get, I think I'll only be interviewed once. Right now, I just like it where I am."

If White chooses not to report, Petitbon says, "We'll work like hell to get ready and we will be good."

He remains concerned, but unchanged. Listening to Michael Jackson music blare on a tape deck after practice the other day, as Redskins players worked on a new-wave conditioning program of neck-twisting, funky pull-ups and other new-fangled twists, Petitbon just smiled.

"Things used to be different in the old days," he said, thinking of old Redskins cronies named Talbert, Pottios and Pardee. "We used to do push-ups to Sinatra."