CARLISLE, PA., AUG. 13 -- Washington Redskins defensive end Fred Stokes, who missed the preseason opener because of a sore shoulder, returned to practice this morning and probably will be back in the starting lineup for Friday night's game with the Pittsburgh Steelers at RFK Stadium.

"It feels better," he said. "It's not 100 percent yet, so you do worry a little bit about it. The thing you worry about is it popping out again. That's why you don't want to go full speed until you feel confident. I'm getting there."

His return means the Redskins will be missing only half their starting defensive line. Still out is left tackle Tracy Rocker, who will miss at least one more game because of a strained biceps tendon, and right tackle Darryl Grant, who is holding out.

No Measuring the Missing

While coaches are more than a little concerned about a defense that allowed the Falcons 406 yards, defensive chief Richie Petitbon said it's hard to make definitive judgments until he has everyone back.

"We're in limbo right now," he said. "I hate to say this, but losing a game like that one Saturday may be the best thing for us in the long run. It lets us know all the things we have to work on and gives us a chance to focus on some things."

Petitbon was hard-pressed to give praise to anyone, although he said free agent cornerback Alvoid Mays played well in difficult circumstances.

Otherwise, team officials realize they're thin in some areas. General Manager Charley Casserly has been seeking defensive line and cornerback help, but there appears to be none available for at least a couple more weeks.

One hope is that cornerback Brian Davis will recover from a pulled quadriceps muscle and be able to play. Davis entered this camp as the starting cornerback opposite Darrell Green and the Redskins believe if he could ever get healthy, he could be a first-rate performer.

But he has not been healthy in two of his three pro seasons before 1990. Asked if the Redskins had lost confidence that Davis could hold up for an entire season, Gibbs said, "The only thing to go on is past history and he's had injury problems. That can be a run of bad luck."

Davis definitely is out of Friday's game, which again leaves Green and Martin Mayhew (two interceptions) as the starting cornerbacks and veteran Wayne Davis and rookie Mays as the backups.

Matters may look worse than they are since the Falcons used four wide receivers so much of the night, thereby forcing three or four cornerbacks into the game.

"I'm concerned because we're not healthy," Gibbs said. "It all goes together. If we're not rushing the passer, that could be the problem, more than the secondary. We didn't play well either way Saturday night."

Wayne Davis said the problems "were nothing than can't be fixed. A lot of it is being in the right position. We had several guys who made good plays. It's just that we lost a game and people tend to get down on you. It's only one game."

Two Rejoin the Huddle

Quarterbacks Jeff Rutledge (shoulder) and Cary Conklin (knee) have been cleared to play Friday. Neither is 100 percent and Gibbs said he hasn't decided what his quarterback rotation will be.

"It's a lot better," Rutledge said. "It's better this afternoon than this morning and I'm hoping it continues to get back to normal."