The Washington Redskins' defense more than did its part Sunday in delivering a 28-3 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, a game the Redskins desperately needed to win to preserve their playoff hopes.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said yesterday the defense's performance was not the result of any revamped scheme. Though the defense did blitz with success, Nolan said no single factor was responsible for the turnaround. Instead, he attributed the improved defensive play to some basic factors: the contribution of defensive ends Anthony Cook against the run and Ndukwe Kalu against the pass; better tackling all around; and such intangibles as confidence and energy.

"I think the guys are playing as a team better," Nolan said. "The guys are hustling around the ball better. I think they're playing better, with more confidence as a unit. When they're playing with confidence, you're more apt to stick them in that [blitzing] situation and let them go with it. It creates that energy."

The Redskins (8-5) held the Cardinals (6-7) to just 173 yards of total offense, including 53 yards rushing. It was the third time in the last four games that the defense has held opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing.

Moreover, in the four Arizona drives that began inside Washington territory, the Cardinals came away scoreless. The Redskins surrendered only one big play--a 43-yard reception by David Boston on the Cardinals' lone scoring drive. Most pleasing to Coach Norv Turner was the fact that the defense held Arizona without a first down on seven drives.

"If you can stop a team seven times without getting a first down, you're going to be in pretty good shape," Turner said.

After several early-season games in which the offense had to compensate for the shortcomings of the defense, the defense repaid the favor Sunday. While holding the Cardinals without a touchdown, the defense also forced four turnovers: three interceptions and a fumble that set up the scoring drive that put the Redskins up 21-3 at the half. "If you can get ahead of a team 21-3, in the second half you get to do what our offense likes to do: hammer at 'em," Turner said.

With the win, the Redskins defense moves from 30th to 28th overall: 27th against the pass and 24th against the run.

If the unit is finally coming together, it couldn't come at a finer time. With a tenuous one-game lead in the race for the NFC East championship, the Redskins travel to Indianapolis (11-2) Sunday to face the NFL's fourth-ranked offense. The Colts' weapons include such outstanding performers as quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James (1,311 rushing yards) and wide receiver Marvin Harrison (88 catches).

Sunday's game, then, will likely turn on which defense does a better job putting the brakes on the opposing team's high-octane offense.

"I think the confidence level is coming back," Nolan said. "With each week, it's challenged again. I think we've made definite strides in the last month. We'll see what happens Sunday."

The Redskins' defense was projected to be a strength this season, with upgrades at nearly every position. Marco Coleman added experience to the defensive line, rookie Champ Bailey added speed at cornerback and Sam Shade added intensity at safety. The only real question was at linebacker, where three young starters had nominal experience.

The defense looked promising in the preseason. But its confidence took a beating in the season-opening loss to Dallas, in which the Redskins squandered a 21-point lead in a fourth-quarter collapse. The legacy of the 41-35 overtime loss was profound. The defense plunged into a statistical abyss, having surrendered 541 yards of offense. And coaches grew wary of blitzing after paying dearly for unsuccessful all-out swipes at quarterback Troy Aikman.

"In the Dallas game, in the opener, we blitzed several times, and it was just . . . disheartening," Nolan said.

It's unclear how much credit for the defense's recent improvement properly goes to consultant Bill Arnsparger. Other factors, though, are easy to spot.

Cook, who took over for Kenard Lang in Game 10, has improved the run defense. And Kalu, who missed four games with a broken foot, has sparked the pass defense. "He's a guy that can make a very basic four-man rush call look pretty good with his rush," Nolan said of Kalu.

The linebackers began the season with the least experience of any defensive unit. Shawn Barber and Greg Jones were first-time starters, and Derek Smith was making his debut at starting middle linebacker. Yet it was the one defensive unit without a full-time position coach after team officials declined to replace outgoing linebackers coach Dale Lindsay in order to hire a second defensive line coach. But in recent weeks, Nolan has had assistant Jeff FitzGerald work exclusively with the linebackers, and he sees dividends.

"I'll say that for those three young backers: They don't think they've arrived by any stretch of the imagination," Nolan said. "They work hard all the time."