The Washington Redskins' defenders, and the linebackers in particular, are on a roll. For references, ask Ken O'Brien or Jim Kelly, two quarterbacks who have faced their coverages and felt their sacks. Their rushing defense is ranked first in the National Football Conference. They have not been beaten by running backs coming out of the backfield. They have played very well as the Redskins have gone 6-1, tied for the best record in pro football.

But what's good for the Redskins linebackers isn't necessarily good for their former leader. In case anyone's forgotten, that's middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz.

During the NFL players strike, Olkewicz, the player representative, was the most visible man on the roster. Now that the strike is over, he has become just about the least visible player after returning from a knee injury.

"I know it's not easy for a player to come back and not play as much as he's used to playing," defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello said yesterday. "I know he wants to be in there."

But unless middle linebacker Rich Milot or outside linebackers Monte Coleman or Mel Kaufman are injured, Olkewicz's role this year might be almost exclusively as a backup. Olkewicz suffered a knee injury in the first preseason game and wasn't ready to play until the strike ended. Now he is 100 percent healthy, his coaches say, but he can't crack the starting lineup.

"You've got three guys who are going real good right now," said Coach Joe Gibbs. "Who do you put back on the bench right now? Would it be Monte? Or would it be Mel or Richie? It becomes kind of tough when guys are going pretty good. But somewhere in there, I guarantee you Olky will be bouncing back to save our hide in there."

Olkewicz, 30 and in his ninth season, participated in two plays in the Redskins' 27-7 win at Buffalo Sunday. He helped stuff Bills running back Robb Riddick on third and one at the Washington 41 early in the game, then stayed in on fourth down when Riddick made the first down. Later, when Milot twisted his left ankle and left the game (he is expected to practice Wednesday), the Redskins went to a nickel defense to defend Kelly's passes. Olkewicz has never played much in passing situations, and didn't play then, either.

Olkewicz, who could not be reached for comment on a day off, isn't one to complain in public, but Peccatiello knows this is a hard time for him.

"In our eyes, all four of our veteran linebackers are starters," he said. "Neal is the backup middle linebacker and if we had to make a move, I wouldn't bat an eye about putting him back in. All four have played equal amounts in the past in specialty situations, but, right now, it's not necessary to make the situation substitutions as we've done before, because Rich, Monte and Mel are playing so well. Unfortunately, that leaves Neal sitting out right now."

Gibbs has said in the past that a player cannot lose his job because of an injury, but this situation is different, the coach said.

Peccatiello said the trio he has starting now is playing too well to break up. "We feel all four guys there can play," he said. "It's not really a question of having one starting or not."

Meanwhile, at 4 p.m. today, the Redskins must make another roster cut to reach a 50-man roster. This means five players must be released or placed on injured reserve and it's likely most, if not all, will be replacement players. Eight ex-replacement players have not been activated for either game since the strike: wide receiver Anthony Allen, guard Darrick Brilz, safety Steve Gage, running backs Lionel Vital and Tim Jessie, center Eric Coyle, punt returner Derrick Shepard and tight end Joe Caravello.

Caravello, who has a sprained lower back, is expected to become the team's backup blocking tight end once he gets healthy, which puts veteran Cliff Benson on the spot. Gage, who had a strong training camp, also is expected to stay on the roster.

Even while winning, a coach always can find something to complain about. Gibbs said the team's "only real negatives" were on blocking for placement kicks and punts. Gibbs said the protection is breaking down, putting added pressure on kicker Ali Haji-Sheikh and punter Steve Cox. Gibbs said a 44-yard field goal attempt by Haji-Sheikh should have been blocked. The kick sailed wide right, but Buffalo's Fred Smerlas was called for running into the kicker and the Redskins drove to Jay Schroeder's 13-yard touchdown run. The field goal episode was almost identical to the pressure placed on Jess Atkinson on an extra point in the season opener. Atkinson made the kick but was hit and dislocated his left ankle.

"We have guys who all of a sudden panic {on their blocks}," Gibbs said. "We need to solve this and we need to have it done right now before it costs us a game."

Gibbs, who often informs the league office about calls officials might have missed that hurt the Redskins, turned the tables yesterday and found a mistake that helped his team.

After looking at the Buffalo game tape, Gibbs said Schroeder did appear to fumble when he was hit by strong safety Dwight Drane near midfield late in the first half. The officials ruled that Schroeder was in Drane's grasp before he fumbled and a review of the instant replay didn't change the call.

"I'd say, from where we were, it looked like a fumble," Gibbs said. "The ball should have been given to them right on the spot."