A preseason game, such as the one the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons will play tonight at 8 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, is not all things to all people.

It is a brief chance to test the ol' arm for quarterback Joe Theismann, who will start, Coach Joe Gibbs said. It is something entirely different, a battle for survival, for Jay Schroeder and Babe Laufenberg, Theismann's understudies.

It is the first real chance to shine for free safety Raphel Cherry and cornerback Barry Wilburn, who have been impressive in practice. It is a test of a new two-back offense for several Redskins backs, especially Keith Griffin. It is an opportunity to show the coach fumbling is not a habit for rookie running backs Lionel Vital and Vincent Hall, who have had problems in the past two scrimmages.

And, on the other sideline, it is a chance for a little revenge for running back Joe Washington, traded last spring by the Redskins during the National Football League draft, and for Falcons Coach Dan Henning, Gibbs' former assistant head coach.

It's hard to imagine an early August game charged with emotion, but that's just what Gibbs expects.

"When you play somebody you know so well, there are mixed emotions," he said in Carlisle, Pa., before leaving with the team for Atlanta. "Our first thoughts are for us, but, at the same time, when you look across the field and see those guys like Joe, knowing what Joe's done for us, and Dan, what kind of person Dan is, there are mixed emotions.

"I don't think it comes up as much in the regular season (the two teams will play Nov. 3 in Atlanta). There are not many mixed emotions in the regular season. They're going to try to kill us and we're going to try to kill them."

It's supposed to be milder Saturday night, although Gibbs will use the game as "a big indicator of where we are."

He will play his first string "as long as it takes," Gibbs said. "Sometimes that's a drive, a quarter, a half." Odds are it will be a very short time.

When Theismann comes out, it's likely Schroeder will go in, although that's not certain, Gibbs said. "We like to always have a tension there."

When Gibbs was asked who would start at running back, the words "George Rogers" did not immediately pop out of his mouth. Although Rogers, the No. 1 running back with John Riggins still out of camp, is expected to get more work than the four carries he had in last weekend's scrimmage, the Redskins also may experiment with a two-back offense, probably with Griffin in the lineup.

"I don't know how much we'll use it," Griffin said. "I hope we use it some in this game. I like it. It gives the other backs a chance to play. I like the options it gives the backs -- running, blocking, catching."

The Redskins' running strategy has become the first official secret of the season, and Gibbs loves it.

"We might go with Rogers, or the two-back, or maybe even the no-back," he said, smiling. "Just Joe (Theismann) and four receivers. What do you think?"

Gibbs said that Atlanta's unique off-set 40 defense, which is a different look than the standard 4-3 or 3-4, presents a problem in getting an offense ready for a new season.

"It's a little harder against Atlanta," he said. "It's an oddball thing for us, going against a different defense. It's a little harder for George (Rogers) and for us."

This game also will mark the return of tight end Clint Didier, who has been cleared for contact after a springtime bout with mononucleosis-hepatitis. Didier and Don Warren are expected to start at tight end in Atlanta.

The Falcons, who had a 4-12 record last season, have perhaps even more experimenting to do. Second-year quarterback David Archer will start over Steve Bartkowski, who missed the final six games of 1984 because of a knee injury.

"It's time to get him in there and see what he can do," Henning said.

Now that running back William Andrews has said he expects to miss this season because of a knee injury suffered in 1984, Gerald Riggs likely will be the workhorse. But Washington is expected to see his share of action.

Another former Redskin, wide receiver Virgil Seay, also is on the Atlanta roster.

But former Redskins are not Gibbs' concern. "I'm anxious to play one and see how we look," he said.

"At about this point, you get tired of hammering yourself."