When the Washington Redskins’ defenders gathered in a huddle Sunday afternoon, they stood at their 19-yard line. The St. Louis Rams, once down by 17 points, had just created a turnover, and what amounted to a crowd at Edward Jones Dome grew as raucous as it could for their winless, hapless football team. A game the Redskins had dominated was slipping away, a perfect time for panic.

So the Redskins’ defenders looked at each other — “Right in the eye, right in each other’s eyes,” linebacker Brian Orakpo said — and smiled.

“It’s go time,” Orakpo said. “It’s just: ‘Guys, hey. Somebody make a play.’ ”

So on an afternoon when the Redskins might have suffered a debilitating loss, the defense did just that, overwhelming St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford and an overmatched offensive line on the game’s pivotal possession, securing a 17-10 victory.

The quick chronology, when the Rams got the ball with 51 / 2 minutes remaining, goes like this: incomplete pass, five-yard penalty on the Rams for an illegal shift, a sack by defensive end Stephen Bowen, then a sack from Orakpo. A possession that began in the red zone ended with the Rams punting from the Redskins 39 — and with the defense celebrating its performance.

“We just got to be excited about it,” nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “You got to look at it like another opportunity to make some plays and pile up some stats.”

Which is precisely what the Redskins did. That crushing three-and-out provided a fitting conclusion to a very solid defensive day that continued to show how far the unit had progressed since last year, when it struggled in its first season in the 3-4 scheme drawn up by coordinator Jim Haslett.

Sunday, the Redskins racked up seven sacks of Bradford, rattling the second-year quarterback again and again. Through three quarters, they had allowed just 99 yards, and the 172 yards they gave up on the day were the fewest Washington has allowed in almost four years — since a December 2007 game against Dallas, which gained just 147.

“Anytime you hold an offense under 200 yards in the National Football League — it doesn’t happen very often,” said Coach Mike Shanahan. “. . . They get the ball, great field position — to keep them out of the end zone, to make some plays like we did really says a lot about everybody.”

There are some indications that this Redskins unit is playing together, understanding the nuances of Haslett’s system. Bowen, the free agent signed away from the Cowboys in the offseason, said the Redskins were able to get pressure up the middle late in the game because the linemen called their own stunts. Bowen finished with 11 / 2 sacks, and Carriker had another. Rookie linebacker Ryan Kerrigan had another and Orakpo had 21 / 2.

“We got a whole bunch of depth on this team that really correlates to what we’re doing on defense,” Orakpo said.

The Redskins have given up just one touchdown the past two weeks, and are allowing only 15.8 points per game through the first quarter of the season. Last year, with ill-fitting pieces and a natural adjustment to a completely different scheme, they infamously allowed 389.3 yards a game, next-to-last in the league. Through four games this year, that number is down to 296.5.

Even when the Rams had the ball and a first down inside the Washington 20, they could not get across the goal line. From there, the Redskins forced the Rams backward, and won the game.

“When we go into a ballgame, we feel like we’re going to defend every blade of grass,” defensive captain London Fletcher said. “We’re not giving up anything. We’re not conceding a touchdown, regardless of where they get the ball. Until they cross that goal line, we’re going to defend every blade of grass.”