The Washington Redskins, on the eve of their preseason home opener, have been told that defensive end Fred Stokes suffered no serious damage to his left shoulder and that he may be back in time for the Sept. 9 regular season opener.

Team physician Charles Jackson recommended that Stokes resume therapy designed to strengthen the shoulder. In addition, trainer Bubba Tyer will attempt to fit Stokes for some type of harness designed to decrease the chance of re-injury.

The Redskins had feared much worse news Wednesday morning when Stokes's shoulder popped out of place for the second time in two weeks. The favorable diagnosis means that there still is hope of getting a season from a young lineman who played well down the stretch last year and also in being able to patch a workable defensive unit back together.

"It's no secret," defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon said. "We need to get some bodies back out there. You can't do things with mirrors."

Still, it will be an odd combination that trots onto the field when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to sold-out RFK Stadium at 8 tonight.

The Redskins will play without four defensive starters, in addition to starting right cornerback A.J. Johnson, who won't play this year after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery.

Fourth-year cornerback Brian Davis was supposed to replace Johnson, but he has missed the entire camp with a pulled right quadriceps muscle. Martin Mayhew will start at right corner, and while the Redskins think highly of him, they'll be tested when teams use multiple sets with more than two wide receivers.

The secondary looks almost prosperous compared with the defensive line, where left end Charles Mann will be the only projected starter in the lineup. With Stokes and left tackle Tracy Rocker (strained biceps tendon) injured and right tackle Darryl Grant a holdout, the Redskins will use a variety of free agent veterans and younger players.

Plan B signee Milford Hodge, rookie Kent Wells and Markus Koch will start for a second straight week, but Alonzo Mitz (veteran free agent), Pat Swoopes (Plan B), Thomas Rayam (10th-round draft pick) and others will play.

That group played poorly last weekend and was one reason the Redskins blew leads of 17-0 and 20-10 to lose by 31-27 to the Atlanta Falcons. The Washington defense allowed 406 yards, including 173 in the fourth quarter.

General Manager Charley Casserly has been on the phone exploring trade possibilities, but hasn't come close to anything. Instead, the Redskins are hoping Rocker, Stokes and Davis will get healthy and that they'll get Grant's name on a contract in the next week or two.

"You get those guys back in there and the defensive unit looks completely different," Casserly said.

In the meantime, a window of opportunity has been opened for a lot of young linemen and defensive backs.

"We're going to play the younger guys and try to make the right decision on them," Gibbs said. "We're looking for some of these guys to step up. The next couple of weeks is crucial to them. These are the games when they can make the team. These are guys that normally wouldn't play as much as they're going to be playing."

But he added a warning: "These kinds of injuries may happen in the regular season. We could use this same lineup in the opener against Phoenix, and if we don't play good, it won't be a good sign."

Still, it is a preseason game and there are differences. Gibbs said the Redskins "will do what they have to do to make evaluations on guys." Against Atlanta, that meant revealing little of their full offense. They used three wide receivers together only a few times and are not likely to do so much tonight.

Instead, the goals will be to get quarterback Mark Rypien and other front-liners a night of work; to get another look at running backs Earnest Byner, Gerald Riggs and James Wilder; and to let the various competitions up and down the roster continue to sort themselves out.

Gibbs calls this "a perfect preseason schedule." It's perfect in that the opener was against Jerry Glanville and the emotional Falcons and that three playoff teams -- the Steelers, Browns and Rams -- will follow.

"I want our team to be tested," Gibbs said, "and these are legitimate tests. We know we can't go out there with the idea of sauntering along. This week is a test just like last week was. If we lose, it won't be good."

The biggest test may be for Wells, who has risen from an unheralded sixth-round draft pick into contention for a spot on the team. He opened a lot of eyes by playing well in three scrimmages, then didn't play well against the Falcons.

The Steelers are a better test. A former all-Big Eight performer from Nebraska, he's 6 feet 4, 295 pounds, and the Redskins believe he'll get bigger and stronger as he matures physically.

"I know what's on the line," he said. "I played okay last week, but I need to play better."

The Redskins rushed for only 36 yards against the Falcons and got 18 of those on one Byner carry. The Redskins likely will run the ball a lot tonight, and Gibbs will look at all of his running backs, including rookie Brian Mitchell, who returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown last week.

But it's the defense that will get the most attention. And Mann may get more attention than anyone else on the field. He played only briefly last week, but Petitbon called his performance "just outstanding."

"It hurts when you have parts missing," Mann said. "But then you have to remember these games don't count. We have time to correct whatever is wrong out here. The game means something, especially since it's at home. But it's not going to be like the regular season."