Washington Redskins outside linebacker Greg Jones continues to improve from a strained lower back and is expected to practice today, reducing the likelihood that the team will need to rely heavily on recently acquired backup James Francis against the Detroit Lions on Sunday.

Still, Francis is expected to be tapped occasionally to relieve Jones, as he was last week in the Redskins' 20-17 overtime victory against Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Shawn Barber, the Redskins' other outside linebacker, has been practicing with a sprained shoulder. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said he sees the injury's effect on Barber's play. But other than giving him occasional breaks by using backup Eddie Mason, Nolan plans to stick with his starters against Detroit.

"Hopefully, they're healthy by game time," Nolan said. "It looks like they should be. I think we'll be okay."

Jones is listed as probable for Sunday. Francis, a 10-year veteran, was signed by the Redskins Oct. 26 after the former first-round draft pick (12th overall, 1990) was released by Cincinnati following training camp. At 6 feet 5, 257 pounds, he is bigger and more physical than the Redskins' starting linebackers.

"He's been here long enough to be ready to play," Coach Norv Turner said. "He's been backing up, he's played in games. He's a physical player. I think he'll help us against the run."

At left defensive end, Anthony Cook remains the starter because Kenard Lang, the Redskins' 1997 first-round draft pick (17th overall), hasn't convinced coaches he can play with consistency.

"He has made some plays," Nolan said, "but it's a consistency thing. Anthony has done a very good job in the run defense area for us and given us a boost. And [Ndukwe] Kalu has given us a real good boost in the pass defense. There's no reason Kenard should get back in the lineup until he makes that decision in his own mind and does the things necessary to do it."

Conway Apologizes

Redskins place kicker Brett Conway apologized yesterday for remarks he made following last Sunday's game, in which fans at FedEx Field booed him after he missed a 28-yard field goal that would have won the game against Philadelphia in regulation. Conway had dismissed fans' reaction by saying "half of them were drunk anyway."

"I was frustrated," Conway said yesterday. "It had nothing to do with them. It came off the wrong way. I was wrong in saying it. I got a couple of letters that put things in perspective. It was the wrong thing to say, and I apologize."

Lions' Batch May Start

Though Detroit Lions Coach Bobby Ross has said he won't decide on his starting quarterback until game day, it's looking increasingly as if Charlie Batch will get the nod over backup Gus Frerotte when the Redskins visit the Pontiac Silverdome Sunday. Batch said yesterday that his injured thumb is feeling "pretty good." Assuming he still feels fine Saturday after two days of practice, Batch said he thinks he'll start Sunday. . . . Redskins starting tight end Stephen Alexander (hip flexor) remains listed as doubtful. Turner said he would see how Alexander runs today and will decide on his status Sunday.

Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this report.