Linebacker Neal Olkewicz's sprained right knee was locked at a pained 30-degree angle yesterday -- "a little crooked," Olkewicz put it -- and Redskins doctors scheduled arthroscopic surgery for today to discover the severity of the injury.

Olkewicz, now 30 and with 1,172 NFL tackles, said this is the sixth time in his nine Redskins seasons he has injured his right knee.

"{Doctors} are expecting that it's just cartilage and they'll have to trim some of it off," said Olkewicz, who could not straighten his leg because of the pain yesterday. "If that's the case, I'll be out two or three weeks. If they find ligament damage, though, I'll be out a lot longer. They seem confident it's only cartilage."

Both team doctor Charles Jackson, who examined Olkewicz yesterday, and trainer Bubba Tyer said more will be known today when X-rays and other tests will be done. In the meantime, the prominence of backup middle linebacker Shawn Burks, a second-year player, is likely to increase.

"Oh, man, they're gonna scope it?" was defensive tackle Darryl Grant's reaction to hearing the Olkewicz update. "That probably means you can count on at least four weeks {absence}."

That estimate, echoed by several other Redskins players yesterday in the wake of the team's 23-17 preseason victory over Pittsburgh at RFK Stadium Friday night, may or may not be true.

"Arthroscope" (or simply "scope") is a voodoo word among NFL players. They hear it and cringe. "Then again, it beats the word 'reconstruction,' " safety Ken Coffey noted.

One month before the Sept. 13 season opener against Philadelphia, Redskins coaches remain optimistic about Olkewicz. After all, Olkewicz has been rock steady during his career and hasn't missed a regular season game since 1981.

"I've had the knee arthroscoped twice before," Olkewicz said. "It's never been major -- usually just a week or two {absence}."

There are, however, evil portents for the Redskins' defense: all-pro defensive end Dexter Manley suffered a partially torn ligament in his right knee in a scrimmage eight days ago and Tyer noted yesterday that "Dr. Jackson has said {Manley's absence} will be anywhere from two to six weeks. We've been real pleased with Dexter's progress."

Although it's conceivable Manley and Olkewicz will be ready to play by the season opener or soon thereafter, their absence also shatters the continuity Coach Joe Gibbs wants.

Tyer is in his 16th season with the Redskins and he described the team's injury accumulation as "more than the norm. But when you look and try to figure out why these things are happening and what we might be doing wrong, you see they have all been isolated things.

"Dexter was in the greatest shape of his life. Neal said he just got pushed {on the play in which he suffered the injury}. Injuries go in waves. If we continued to suffer injuries at this same pace, we wouldn't have anybody left at the end of the season. But it levels off."

Coffey pondered the possibility of playing on a Redskins defense without Manley and Olkewicz. "You only have about five guys in the league who can do what Dexter can do," he said. "As far as Olky, his will have to be a responsibility that will be assumed by more than one person. He's so consistent he's like clockwork. Outside of Dave Butz, no one on the defense has been there as long or played as consistently as Neal. I know that Shawn Burks is very capable.

"But that's been the whole Redskins story: backups having the chance to come in and produce."

Injury quickly has complicated what promised to be an intense summer duel for the linebackers. Age has crept up on Olkewicz, Monte Coleman, Rich Milot and Mel Kaufman, all of whom are 29 or 30. Furthermore, the Redskins did not select a linebacker in this year's draft and General Manager Bobby Beathard pointed to three young second-year players who spent last season on the injured list -- Kurt Gouveia, Anthony Copeland and Ravin Caldwell -- as his linebackers of the future.

All three of these players have been plagued by injuries this summer, though. "We're hurtin'," Kaufman said. Grant added: "It's been like a phenomenon. Maybe it's the bad luck of the draw."

Gouveia suffered a broken right hand against the Steelers Friday night. Jackson said Gouveia broke two metacarpal bones, in his index and middle fingers; Gouveia's hand has been placed in a cast. Beathard said yesterday that Gouveia shouldn't miss any practice time, although Tyer said it might be "possibly two weeks" before Gouveia can return to live game action.

Copeland, meanwhile, sprained his left knee in a scrimmage last week against the New York Jets and, according to Tyer, "is week to week." Caldwell suffered a minor concussion Friday night that shouldn't cost him any practice time.

So how are the Redskins to react? "I think every team is in the same situation now with injuries," said Beathard, during a break from game film reviews at Redskin Park.

Asked if a possible lengthy absence of Olkewicz might cause him to look for other available linebackers, Beathard said, "I don't think there is anyplace to look. We have a lot of options. We could move Milot inside {to Olkewicz's spot} or there are some other things we could do."