Wilber Marshall speaks slowly, drawing the words out softly, making sure each one is heard. He is three years removed from the Chicago Bears and remains bothered by the perception that when he joined the Washington Redskins he became less of a player.

Yet five weeks and four games into the 1990 season, with Marshall posting the best numbers of his seven-year career and again receiving the attention that goes with being a dominant defensive player, he seems eager to talk about both the past and the future.

He wants fans to know that he, for one, does not consider himself any less of a player, that he did struggle for two years with how best to fit into a new system and that it bothers him that his name no longer shows up on many Pro Bowl ballots.

He said he never will have the raw sack numbers of a pass-rushing specialist such as Green Bay linebacker Tim Harris, but asked: "Can he do everything I can do? I don't think so. Some of these guys with the sacks couldn't cover anybody."

After getting four sacks in each of his first two seasons with the Redskins, Marshall has three this season. He ranks eighth in the NFC and also is on a pace for another 130-tackle season. None of the other sack leaders at linebacker will even approach 100 tackles, except Giants superstar Lawrence Taylor.

If once Marshall settled for playing the run, as the Redskins asked him to, he now seems more inclined to gamble, to take more chances and to make the big plays that were missing in 1988-89.

"The difference this year is that I've tried to find a way to be more effective in this system," he said. "I'm thinking more about things I can do and how I can make plays. It's important to me. In my position, people say, 'Well, you're getting a lot of money.' But I still have pride. I still feel like I'm one of the top linebackers. I know if I were back in that old system, I'd do the same things I always did. In some ways, I'm doing better because I'm making more tackles."

He has 33 tackles and may challenge his career high of 133 set two years ago, but tackles don't get linebackers to the Pro Bowl.

Sacks and playing on a winning team get them there.

As for the former, "You notice the sacks," Marshall said, "but what teams do is take a defensive end and make him a linebacker. You can call a guy anything you want, but some of these guys who are called linebackers aren't really linebackers. They're not dropping back in pass coverage. Some of those guys couldn't cover anybody."

Monte Coleman subbed for Marshall on many passing downs the last two seasons, but Marshall has stayed in for many this year.

As for the latter -- playing on a winner -- the Redskins enter Sunday's game against the Giants with a 3-1 record and a defense that has allowed an average of 13 points a game.

They have gambled, hustled, thrown up a shutout, allowed 18 second-half points, lead the NFC with 14 sacks and have a shot at breaking their record of 66 in 1984.

When Marshall signed a five-year, $6 million contract 2 1/2 years ago, he knew his life would change. He knew people would expect more of him and that some would never be satisfied. He knew there would be critics to whom he could never answer.

Marshall had been happy and healthy most of his four years in Chicago. He was a gambling, arrogant player on a gambling, arrogant defense that prided itself on battering quarterbacks and controlling games.

Marshall's voice takes on a tone bordering on amazement even as he remembers: "We might leave the cornerbacks out there alone and say, 'Just give us three seconds and we'll get to the quarterback.' If we didn't get back there in three seconds, it's going to be a big play against you. With the people we had, we could do that. It got to the point that on a third and seven, teams would have to keep the tight end or two running backs in. That left them with fewer things they could do downfield.

"We got pressure anyway, because with guys like Dan Hampton and Richard Dent, you couldn't double-team everyone. We didn't worry about giving up the big play because we accepted them. We also accepted that after it happens a few times, the quarterback is going to get skittish. He's not going to be as precise. He may hit one or two, but he's going to get worn out. He's going to be ducking at the end of the day."

Marshall found things different in Washington, where there was less talent and a more disciplined system. He found one of the game's best defensive coordinators, Richie Petitbon, and a unit that worked because all the parts fit together.

He was asked to play the run, to cover tight ends and to do less gambling. As a result, there were fewer big plays. The Redskins killed people softly, and Marshall was sometimes coming out in passing situations. Therefore, he was getting fewer sacks, no longer being asked to play in Pro Bowls and generally considered a lesser player.

He responded with silence, telling reporters again and again that he was doing what he was asked to do and that people did not understand how much his role had changed.

"I'm the same player I was in Chicago," he said. "But I do want to make big plays. Who doesn't?"

Marshall said he became more active this season by taking a chance in the opener. He noticed Charles Mann was getting double-teamed and that no one was blocking him.

"Before, I'd stay on my man," Marshall said of the tight end. "Well, shoot, if he's going to stay in and chip Charles, that frees me up. The thing about that is, you can make mistakes. If he {fakes} the block on Charles and slips out for a pass, you can get burned. What you have to do after you get someone once or twice is be cautious. You really have to watch for it the next week because you know they've seen the films. But either way it's going to leave just one guy on Charles or leave me free."

Marshall said the perception that he was one player in Chicago and another in Washington may never change. He said he may never become a star of the TV highlight shows as he once was, but that after two years of fitting into a new system, he is at least trying.

"People are going to think what they're going to think," he said. "The thing is, not everyone understands what's going on out there and awards are just someone's opinion. But you'd like to think you're doing everything for your team you can."