Mike Nolan doesn't want to get carried away with this redemption thing. After all, the Washington Redskins' defense still is ranked 28th among the NFL's 31 teams. The Redskins' embattled defensive coordinator knows his unit faces its toughest test of the year Sunday at Indianapolis, and he realizes his job security beyond this season remains tenuous at best.

"I think to myself, 'This is Indianapolis, Mike,' " Nolan said. "I don't want to sit here and say something [about the defense's improvement] and then have to come back Monday and say, 'Well, we're really not where we thought we were.' "

Still, this is--at least by this season's standard--a gratifying time for Nolan. He has survived the worst--or at least he hopes so. The Redskins' defense in recent weeks finally has begun to resemble the unit that club officials believed they would have when the season began. The criticism has subsided, and Nolan even can go a few days at a time without being asked whether he's worried about being fired.

When things were at their worst earlier this season, Nolan said repeatedly that it wasn't about him. It still is not about him, he says now. When pressed, though, he acknowledges that he feels good about how he has handled himself during what he has described as his most difficult season in coaching. He might not escape this season with his job, but he will escape it with his dignity.

"The thing you want to do all along is maintain your own personal integrity," Nolan said. "You want to be a stand-up guy. You want to be a man about what's going on. You need to take responsibility. You can't give it to somebody else because it lightens your load."

The Redskins' defense can repair some of the damage from its calamitous early-season performance if it continues to play well and helps the team reach the playoffs for the first time since the 1992 season. Yet the performance of Nolan's unit probably will be remembered as disappointing no matter what happens down the stretch, and Nolan accepts his share of the blame.

"It's my responsibility, as I've said all along, how we do," he said. "It takes a lot of people to be good. It takes a lot of people not to do well. But somebody ultimately is in charge of getting things put together the right way, and that is my responsibility."

Nolan has been in a difficult situation since the Redskins hired Bill Arnsparger as a special assistant coach in October. As the conventional thinking went, if the defense improved, Arnsparger would get the credit. If it didn't, Nolan would continue to get the blame.

Before Arnsparger's arrival, the Redskins allowed an average of 29.5 points and 433.5 yards per game in their first four games of the season. Since then, they have yielded 22.8 points and 309.4 yards per game.

The improvement has been most obvious in the Redskins' last five games, in which they have surrendered 20.2 points and 260.2 yards an outing. The defense had its best game last Sunday, limiting the Arizona Cardinals to 173 yards in the Redskins' 28-3 victory.

Redskins Coach Norv Turner praised Nolan's perseverance yesterday. But, like Nolan, Turner stressed that there are more tests to come.

"I think Mike and our defensive coaches have done a good job," Turner said. "Every week is a new test. The Indianapolis game is a new test. We played great defense against Arizona last week [but] every week is a new challenge."

The Redskins have made only minor personnel and scheme changes on defense as the season has progressed. They have done the same things but have done them better. Meantime, they have faced some struggling offenses. In retrospect, Nolan says, the team's defenders entered the season with unfounded confidence following a preseason in which the starters permitted only six points in seven quarters.

"The thing that does stand out about the guys is, they're much more confident now for a good reason," Nolan said. "We were confident coming out of the preseason, but not for a good reason. We played half a game here and half a game there. . . . There was a lot of false sense of security going on. It's too bad that happened, but it did happen. I would like to think right now that we have some realistic confidence, but not too much that we don't realize what we're up against each week."

When asked whether, after getting so much blame early in the season, he is getting enough credit for the defense's recent play, Nolan shrugged off the question.

"I don't even deal with that," he said. "I don't pay attention, really. It's like I said at the time: It wasn't about me. It was about us improving as a football team and a defense. That's never crossed my mind. I hope it doesn't."

His job security has been an issue since the Redskins squandered a three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter and lost their season opener at home to the Dallas Cowboys in overtime, 41-35. Team owner Daniel M. Snyder was the catalyst behind the discussions that led to the Redskins hiring Arnsparger. When several of Snyder's top advisers recommended that Nolan be fired, Snyder left the decision to Turner, who chose to retain Nolan.

Even if the Redskins make the playoffs and Turner keeps his job beyond this season, several members of his coaching staff--including Nolan and special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel--could be dismissed during the offseason, according to sources close to the situation. Nolan, by now, is accustomed to such speculation.

"It's always day to day, around here especially," he said. ". . . I'm human. Obviously little things pop into your mind. But it doesn't last very long. There's not a lot of time for that because so much of your time goes into who you're playing. Fortunately, the schedule alone doesn't permit much of that. When things are bad, you get to come to work and escape reality. You get to go to the next opponent and set your sights on that team rather than dwelling on what may or may not be later on."

Picking Up the Pace

Since a loss to Buffalo on Nov. 7, the Redskins' defense has improved considerably. The team has gone 3-2 and has allowed fewer than 100 yards rushing in three of those five games.

Bills

Nov. 7

L, 34-17

Total yards allowed: 413

Rushing yards allowed: 204

at Eagles

Nov. 14

L, 35-28

Total yards allowed: 236

Rushing yards allowed: 198

Giants

Nov. 21

W, 23-13

Total yards allowed: 301

Rushing yards allowed: 72

Eagles

Nov. 28

W, 20-17 (OT)

Total yards allowed: 299

Rushing yards allowed: 143

at Lions

Dec. 5

L, 33-17

Total yards allowed: 292

Rushing yards allowed: 31

Cardinals

Dec. 12

W, 28-3

Total yards allowed: 173

Rushing yards allowed: 53

Tightening Up the `D'

The Redskins' defense, game by game this season:

Yards Rush

Date Opp. Score Allowed Yards

9/12 Dallas 35-41(OT) 541 186

9/19 at Giants 50-21 373 83

9/26 at Jets 27-20 337 142

10/3 Carolina 38-36 483 155

10/17 at Arizona 24-10 274 67

10/24 at Dallas 20-38 352 108

10/31 Chicago 48-22 445 74

11/7 Buffalo 17-34 413 204

11/14 at Philadelphia 28-35 236 198

11/21 Giants 23-13 301 72

11/28 Philadelphia 20-17 (OT) 299 143

12/5 at Detroit 17-33 292 31

12/12 Arizona 28-3 173 53

Totals (NFL Rank)Points Per Game: 24.8 (27)

Yards Per Game: 347.6 (28)

Rushing Yards Per Game: 116.6 (24)

Passing Yards Per Game: 231 (27)