The Washington Redskins have three games remaining in the 2011 season and although at 4-9, it appears they have little to play for, Coach Mike Shanahan says the continued development of younger players ranks among the top priorities down the home stretch.

The Redskins on Sunday had a combined nine first- or second-year players playing key roles on offense and defense. On offense, the Redskins called on four rookies — running backs Roy Helu, Evan Royster and offensive linemen Willie Smith and Maurice Hurt. Second-year pro Darrel Young remained the starter at fullback. On defense, Washington started rookie linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who hasn’t missed a snap all season, rookie safety DeJon Gomes and second-year linebacker Perry Riley. And second-year linebacker Rob Jackson was used to relieve Brian Orakpo at outside linebacker.

Tyler Polumbus unexpectedly started at right tackle, and he is in his fourth season, but he hasn’t had extensive time during his career, either.

Shanahan hasn’t lowered his expectation for wins, but believes every snap will help the young Redskins lay a foundation for next season.

“Any time you’re improving, especially with the guys who haven’t played, like Maurice Hurt, you’ve got a guy like Willie Smith, a guy like Tyler coming in. Any time you have some backups come in and you have a little more cohesiveness, that means these guys are getting valuable experience. … Come next year, these guys have more than one game [and] some of them many games.”

Helu continues to impress his coaches. On Sunday, the Nebraska product posted his third consecutive 100-yard rushing game, becoming the first rookie back in Redskins’ history to achieve that feat.

“He’s a student of the game and he works extremely hard. He’s very conscientious [and] very accountable,” Shanahan said. “Usually when you get guys like that, you give them some responsibility. They’re kind of biting at the bit and that’s what he is. He’s a guy that I think looks forward to playing. He doesn’t make many mistakes and, when he does make a mistake, it really hurts him. So guys like that really usually don’t hit the wall even though it is a long season for him.”

Kerrigan has been a bright spot on the defense all season long, and leads the team with 6.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Shanahan sees Riley — who has started the last five games at inside linebacker — as another promising building block.

“I think he just keeps on getting better and it’s going to be a growing process learning the defense and getting comfortable with both inside positions,” Shanahan said of Riley, who as a starter is averaging 10.2 tackles a game. “You can see he can run. He’s got great agility. He’s got a nose for the football and his best years are ahead of him.”