In the practices leading up to Washington’s first preseason game, the Redskins thought about their defense last season and how it should have been better.

“We definitely didn’t live up to our potential last year,” outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “We’re too talented of a defensive unit to have a season like we did last year.”

On Thursday night, Tom Brady didn’t play. His top targets, wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski, didn’t either. It was just the first game of the preseason. But the Redskins’ 23-6 win over the Patriots, a near shutout for the defense, was an encouraging sign for a unit that feels it didn’t live up to its potential last season.

Washington shut out the Patriots for the first 58 minutes, holding the historically prolific offense to 270 yards. New England got its first score with less than two minutes left in the game.

“We have to get back to what we can do and how we can play,” middle linebacker Keenan Robinson said. “We have great players, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be playing a high level of defense.”

The starting defense — minus safety Ryan Clark — forced the Patriots into three-and-outs on the first two series. The defense held New England’s second string to 29 yards of offense in the first quarter. Patriots starting left guard Logan Mankins, a Pro Bowl selection in the past, saw little playing time, but linebacker Brian Orakpo’s sack of backup quarterback Ryan Mallett came against starting left tackle Nate Solder.

“In practice for the last three weeks or whatever, you can’t touch a quarterback,” Orakpo said. “It felt satisfying.”

Most encouraging for the Redskins was how it defended New England’s rushing attack. In the preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans last year, running back Chris Johnson exposed tackling issues when he had a 58-yard run, propelling the Titans to 92 rushing yards in the first quarter.

The Redskins only surrendered 63 rushing yards Thursday night. New England’s starting running backs, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, had three carries between the two of them, but Washington Coach Jay Gruden said he was impressed with the improved tackling against the running game.

“They didn’t play any starters, but those four or five backs can start for many teams,” Gruden said. “It was good to see us wrap up; it was good to see us gang tackling and just flying around to the football. I just felt good watching these guys.”

After Brady and Mallett operated the offense with ease in 11-on-11 drills during joint practices in Richmond this week, the need to get pressure on whoever the starting quarterback was Thursday was reinforced. Mallett said he felt comfortable in the pocket, but Gruden said the defense was able force him to make some hurried throws he didn’t have to in practice.

Robinson said playing against the Patriots in joint practices in Richmond this week prepared the defense for what it saw Thursday night.

“We got a feel for what they want to do on offense,” Robinson said. “It carried over into the game. We kind of knew what they wanted to do against us and what look they were going to give us, so it helped as far as our game plan goes and as far as executing our assignment.”

Players weren’t ready to put too much stock in the first preseason game, in which the star offensive players didn’t see the field. But after an offseason of pondering what could have been, Thursday night was the first taste of the defense’s potential.

“We have everything that we need to be a great defense,” Robinson said. “Now we just have to put it together. Every week and every day, we take a step forward in the right direction, and tonight was a great jump in the right direction.”