The Washington Redskins were supposed to be in the NFC playoffs because of an offense that had the game's best line, three of its best receivers and a quarterback who seemed to hit his pro stride as 1989 ended.

Defense? The Redskins would score enough points and keep the ball long enough to disguise their Achilles' heel.

One day during training camp, defensive architect Richie Petitbon looked at the practice field and saw a defense that was down to two proven linemen and two cornerbacks. He started a couple of preseason games with free agent Alonzo Mitz and rookie Kent Wells in the lineup.

Fred Stokes had a sore shoulder, Brian Davis a bad leg and A.J. Johnson and Jumpy Geathers were recovering from knee surgery. Eric Williams was still with the Detroit Lions, Tim Johnson with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"What did I think?" Petitbon asked. "Well, for one thing, I knew we were working on some deals. What can I think? You can't pay too much attention to training camp."

The Redskins seemingly start with these problems every year or two, and they seemingly always finish as one of the NFL's most consistent defenses. Told in training camp that a scout had made the prediction that the 1990 Redskins would follow that trend, Petitbon shrugged and said, "I'm glad people have confidence in me. I'm glad they don't see what I see."

Yet, with two weeks remaining in the season, the Redskins can again celebrate a defense that is playing its best when it counts most. Petitbon and his defensive staff have done perhaps their best coaching job, rotating 19 or 20 players into various situations and circumstances.

Watch the Redskins and be dizzy as they make wholesale changes from down to down, with linebackers, linemen and defensive backs sprinting onto or off the field.

Only four Redskins -- cornerbacks Darrell Green and Martin Mayhew, safety Todd Bowles and end Charles Mann -- are in for every down. Everyone else is in for a play here and a play there, running on or off the field as Petitbon tries to get good pass rushers and good cover guys in on passing downs, bigger people in on running downs.

Their 37 sacks have been divided among 14 players ranking from 6 1/2 by Stokes, 5 1/2 by Mann and four each by Wilber Marshall and Andre Collins to one apiece by five players. Three -- Alvin Walton, Bowles and Marshall -- have 100 tackles each, and Mayhew (94) may get his 100th Saturday night in Indianapolis.

Statistically, the Redskins rank 15th in defense -- eighth in the NFC. But only four NFC teams -- the 49ers, Giants, Bears and Saints -- have allowed fewer points, and in December, no one has been better.

The Redskins have allowed two touchdowns the last three games and have played better as the season has progressed. Coaches and team executives list several reasons for this.

One is that Petitbon's system isn't simple: The Redskins don't line up and run Defense A. Instead, with only Green having an all-pro year, they give offenses many different looks.

That could cause confusion, but it's also hard to learn. That's especially true this season when Petitbon and his staff -- Larry Peccatiello, Torgy Torgeson and Emmitt Thomas -- have worked so many new players in. Tim Johnson arrived at the end of training camp; Williams came after the first regular season game. Geathers missed the first seven games, A.J. Johnson the first 11. A rookie, Collins, started from Day One, and a Plan B signee, Brad Edwards, has played a lot.

"We've gotten better, but we still have a long way to go," Petitbon said. "We're not a dominating defense by any stretch of the imagination. We've added some good people and they've blended in. This defense has a closeness. You don't hear much 'I' in our locker room. You have to be intelligent and tough and we have some guys like that."

This is the era of the multiple offense and volumes have been written about the run-and-shoot and the various combinations and formations that teams play. But very quietly, NFL teams more and more are settling into the era of situation defensive football.

Petitbon was one of the first to do it, but now the 49ers and others have followed. For his part, Petitbon said he'd still like to be able to line up 11 defenders and let them play.

"We don't do any one thing, but a combination of things," Petitbon said. "You have to be intelligent to do the things we try to do. We're a multiple defense and at various times we'll use a 4-3, a 3-4, six defensive backs, almost anything. We've adjusted during games to fit what the offense was doing. It comes down to getting people into situations they're best in."

It works because, while only Green -- and at times Mann and Marshall -- has been terrific, others are having good years. Mayhew has turned into a better cornerback than the Redskins dreamed, Williams has done a solid job and Bowles -- the signal-caller -- is having his best season.

It's not the classic defense. Where others have a middle linebacker, the Redskins have two of them -- co-starters, Greg Manusky is bigger and stronger than Kurt Gouveia, so he plays mostly running downs. Gouveia is better at pass coverage, so Petitbon tries to get him in on passing downs.

Rookie Collins and veteran Monte Coleman split the outside linebacker's job, with Collins playing mostly the run and Coleman the pass. Pass coverage is Collins's strength and he likely will become a full-time player, but Coleman remains one of the best at covering tight ends on pass routes.

Williams was a full-time player in Detroit and one who clearly doesn't like coming out on passing downs when pass-rush specialists Geathers, Stokes and Tim Johnson come in. Yet he'll also be in the playoffs for the first time and said: "That makes it worthwhile."

And: "More and more teams are evolving into this type of thing. It was hard at first, coming out so much. You don't get a chance to work your man in pass-rush situations. You can pick up how he plays the run in a series or two, but a pass rush you have to work.

"Granted, you don't get voted for the Pro Bowl in this situation. In the locker room, we say, 'Lose yourself.' You have to lose your identity. It's hard to do when you have an ego the size of Texas. But it keeps players fresh, and ideally you put people into situations that they excel in. Some defensive teams go out and try to dictate what the offense is going to do. We're like chess. We do what we think will work against that offense."

One thing it has done is prepare the Redskins for the future. The perception is that they've become an old team, but their defense has only two over-30-year-old starters -- Darryl Grant, 31, and Green, 30. But they also have Stokes, 26, and Tim Johnson, 25, ready to move into the line.

It also means that when Stokes plays at Indianapolis Saturday night for injured Markus Koch, he won't be coming in cold. "It is like the parts are interchangeable," Bowles said.