ST. LOUIS, DEC. 6 -- Defensive back Brian Davis, who has spent most of his rookie season with the trainer, spent today with the Washington Redskins.

Known previously for his gold earring and alleged speed, he recovered a fumble to set up a field goal, helped cause a fumble to set up a touchdown and broke up a controversial pass in the Redskins' 34-17 victory over the Cardinals.

Because he was the Redskins' top 1987 draft choice (30th overall), one might say: "It's about time."

But Davis thought he might not get to contribute until next year. A recurring injury to his thigh kept him on the injured list the last four weeks, and it wasn't like the Redskins were counting down the days to activate him. But they did activate him Saturday, moving fellow rookie Clarence Vaughn (bad ankle) into Davis' old seat in the trainer's room. Davis, who aspires to be a starting cornerback someday, settled for being a hard-hitting special teams player and nickel back, and Coach Joe Gibbs thinks he did quite nicely.

In fact, Gibbs complimented the entire special teams unit, which has spent the last two weeks in basic training and may have graduated today.

Punt returner Eric Yarber had returns of 22 and 15 yards, and kickoff returner Ricky Sanders went 29 yards with one before being tripped at the tip of his toes.

Punter Steve Cox banged one down inside the 10-yard line, and the kickoff coverage -- led by Davis -- set up the third-quarter touchdown that made it 24-17, Redskins.

"We're now playing excellent {special} teams," said Gibbs, who brought in Paul Lanham as a consultant to coach Chuck Banker two weeks ago. "We've put in a lot of work, and it's starting to pay off."

On the fumble he helped cause, Davis barreled downfield and hit returner Derrick McAdoo and thought he might have been directly responsible for the ball coming loose.

Vernon Dean also got a shot at McAdoo, and he may have caused the fumble, too. Whatever, Dennis Woodberry leaped on the football, and running back George Rogers scored three plays later.

"Everybody just wants to go out and play {on special teams} now," Woodberry said today. "We had a special teams meeting, and we all said we were going to play like a championship special team would."

Dean Hamel, the special teams captain, said the blocking was much better for Yarber, proving it probably wasn't all Yarber's fault when he was netting one yard on nearly every return.

"{Yarber's} starting to get in the flow, but we're giving him more time," Hamel said. "Our schemes are beginning to work {such as the man-on-man blocking technique}, and that'll help us in the playoffs."

Of course, Hamel also mentioned the time the Redskins gave up a 46-yard kickoff return to Vai Sikahema in the first quarter.

But Gibbs said: "It wasn't from a lack of effort."

Davis has been trying his hardest, too, but just hadn't succeeded until today. In training camp, before his thigh was first injured, he says he ran a 4.2-second 40-yard dash.

In the first quarter, he recovered a fumble and returned it only three yards.

"Yeah, a lineman caught me," he said.

He says he's spent so much time rehabilitating his thigh, his legs aren't as strong overall. Instead of running 4.2 in the 40, he's running 4.4, and the weird thing is that he thinks he's slow.

He said: "I think when I get completely healthy . . . Well, I hate to look to next year already, but I can't wait to get my legs under me. I want to do well on special teams in the meantime. I mean, I want much more than just special teams, but, sure, I know special teams is my role."

His role is also as a nickel back, and he helped break up a pass intended for running back Stump Mitchell late in the game. At first, it appeared Mitchell caught the ball in the end zone late in the fourth quarter. But Davis slapped it away. Originally, the referee signaled touchdown, but the instant replay official, Dixon Holman, changed the call.

Davis celebrated.

"The transition to the pros isn't easy," he said. "I walked on to a junior college, and I made all-America, and didn't know why. At Nebraska, I didn't even know what a bump and run was.

"I'd never played pass defense. I was just be-bopping along . . . I was supposedly a good football player without even knowing it. So, here I am."