HERNDON, Va. -- In three strokes of Richie Petitbon's brush, RFK Stadium has become a black hole waiting to swallow up any NFL offense daring enough to drop by.
Three home games, three shutouts.
That's the surreal theme in the Washington Redskins' defensive revival this season, a theme so bizarre that even Petitbon, the defensive coordinator, is hard pressed to explain it.
"It's lucky," he said yesterday. "It just doesn't happen. We'll probably have to worry about an avalanche [of points] Sunday."
The Redskins are 6-0 and trying to go 7-0 against the Cleveland Browns at their favorite black hole Sunday. Bernie Kosar, the Cleveland quarterback, says it's impossible to ignore the 102-0 havoc the Redskins have wreaked against Detroit, Phoenix and Philadelphia this season at RFK.
"Players don't worry exclusively about stats," Kosar said, "but you notice that."
This is a defense that has been rebuilt methodically. Two years ago the Redskins brought in Plan B free agents Fred Stokes, a defensive end, and Martin Mayhew, a cornerback. Last year they traded for defensive tackles Eric Williams and Tim Johnson, and signed safety Brad Edwards out of the Plan B pool. This season they went back to Plan B for more help -- middle linebacker Matt Millen and safeties Danny Copeland and Terry Hoage.
A year ago the Redskins ranked 14th in total yards given up.
This year they are tied for the league lead with 13 interceptions. They are second in sacks with 19. They rank first in pass defense. They have allowed just one touchdown in the last nine quarters. And the 65 points scored against the Redskins are the second fewest in the league.
They are not doing it with mirrors, but with a curious cast of castoffs. When defensive end Markus Koch went down with a partially torn knee ligament Sunday in Chicago, Stokes became the fifth Plan B player to join the starting lineup, joining Millen, Mayhew, Edwards and Copeland.
"The guys are working hard together on defense," Stokes said by way of explanation. "We're putting pressure on the quarterback, and that's one of our main goals."
Petitbon insists, with typical Redskin caution, that it's too early to make any judgments about his defense.
"You can't get excited about what you've done in the middle of a horse race," he said. "Nobody cashes in any tickets yet."
Then he conceded, "We are playing very hard and hustling, though."
The Redskins have lost two defensive starters this season in Koch and strong safety Alvin Walton without missing a step. Copeland has filled in capably for Walton, and Stokes is fast establishing himself as a very special player.
In his last 28 Redskins games, he has made 28 1/2 big plays, those being 15 1/2 sacks, six fumble recoveries, five forced fumbles, one interception and one safety. He has done it basically with one arm because of a chronic left shoulder injury.
Team trainer Bubba Tyer said the injury is called a subluxation, or partial dislocation of the shoulder. The bone will pop out of the socket, and then go back in by itself when Stokes relaxes. "It's very painful," Stokes said. "The longer it stays out, the longer it hurts."
Surgery probably will be necessary by the end of the season. In the meantime, Stokes will play in pain.
As a precaution, though, the Redskins signed former Cincinnati first-round draft pick Jason Buck yesterday. Buck is a speedy defensive end who worked out for Buffalo, Seattle and Detroit in addition to the Redskins since being waived by the Bengals last summer.
"This is a dream I wish I could have had as a rookie in 1987," Buck said after signing a contract. "The Redskins have a reputation of being a good team to play for."
Petitbon has made up for his shortage of healthy ends by going more often to a 3-4 alignment off his base 4-3 defense. Other options include moving linebackers Wilber Marshall or Raven Caldwell into a down position on the line.
"They are playing a few different fronts," Kosar said. "They're putting some stress on the offensive line and pass protection schemes. The main thing they have going for them is they are just good. With guys like Charles Mann, they have some great players over there. I don't see any glaring weaknesses."
Neither does Browns coach Bill Belichick. As defensive coordinator for the New York Giants the last eight years, Belichick hasn't lost to the Redskins since 1987, including a preseason game last August in RFK. But he still has an appreciation for the job Redskins coach Joe Gibbs does.
"The Redskins are the team to beat in the NFC for the Super Bowl," Belichick said. "And if not, several teams are going to have to go through Washington to get there.
"The last three years you could see Joe molding the team with his hands to get it exactly where he wants it. The team is about where he wants it."