Sunday had the makings of another long day for the Washington Redskins’ defense. The Minnesota Vikings opened the game by chewing up large portions of real estate, and by the end of the first quarter, they had marched into the red zone three times and gained 148 yards. But there was still a zero in one crucial statistical column: touchdowns.

The Redskins entered Sunday’s game ranked 28th in the NFL in points allowed. But the unit held during three stands in the shadow of their own goal post and forced the Vikings to settle for three first-quarter field goals instead.

That formidable effort set the tone for what eventually would become one of the unit’s better showings of the season and helped Washington pull off a 38-26 victory Sunday at FedEx Field.

After limiting the Vikings to nine points in the first quarter, the Redskins did even better in the second, keeping Minnesota off the scoreboard entirely and yielding just 14 yards of offense.

The Redskins suffered a scare when they gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns before cornerback DeAngelo Hall intercepted quarterback Christian Ponder at the goal line to quash the Vikings’ comeback hopes.

“Defense bent, but didn’t break,” said linebacker Perry Riley, who recorded a team-high 13 tackles. “Offense was able to go into halftime with a lead after that. If we gave up one touchdown or two touchdowns, we probably don’t win.”

And for the second consecutive week, the Redskins returned an interception for a touchdown, this one a 24-yard score by safety Madieu Williams against his former team.

Torched by opponents through the air on a weekly basis and challenged in recent weeks in the pass-rushing department, the Redskins’ defense has spent the entire season as the focus of criticism for Washington’s losses.

But Hall said in the days leading up to the game that he didn’t care if his team allowed 500 yards of offense as long as they limited the Vikings’ points and secured a victory. That’s what the Redskins did.

Minnesota had 421 yards of offense, but found the end zone only twice. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder passed for 352 yards, wideout Percy Harvin recorded 133 receiving yards, and running back Adrian Peterson rushed for 79 yards. But Washington held on four of six red-zone stands and forced three turnovers to clinch the victory.

The Redskins also recorded four sacks — a season high — with backup linebacker Lorenzo Alexander leading the way with 1.5.

“You know you’re going to give up yards, especially against an offense like that, that can move the ball so effectively and is so balanced,” linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “But if you can hold them to three field goals in the red zone, that’s a good job by us defensively. You’d like them not to get down there, but you’ll take that.”

Early in the game, the Vikings went with a series of quick-count snaps to prevent the Redskins from settling in and reading what they planned to run. In the second quarter, the Redskins adjusted and were better prepared pre-snap, and held Minnesota to just one first down.

“We tackled better, we were able to get them in some third-down situations,” linebacker London Fletcher said. “They quick-snapped on us when we were trying to come with a blitz, and they snapped the ball quickly and we weren’t able to get our pressure there. So we knew from that point on what their game plan was and what we were able to do.”

The Redskins also got better pressure by maintaining a steady rotation of linemen and linebackers to ensure that they had fresh legs, and also ran a number of stunts to confuse the Vikings.

Despite all their struggles this season, the Redskins have shown marked improvement in taking the ball away. They entered the game having forced 11 turnovers, and in three other games scored touchdowns off turnovers. But in each of those games, Washington lost.

Sunday, the Redskins finally won when the defense scored. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Vikings facing third and 12 from their own 17, Williams picked off a Ponder pass and returned it 24 yards, reversing field before diving into the end zone for the second touchdown of his career.

That marked the Redskins’ fourth defensive touchdown of the season — the most by the team since 1999 — and their second in as many games after linebacker Ryan Kerrigan’s interception for a touchdown last week against Atlanta.

“We’ve got strong character and a group of character guys,” Williams said. “We hung together, we played together and when things come together like this on Sunday, it feels really good, and as a unit, we celebrate together.”

The Williams touchdown brought Washington’s total points off turnovers to 49 this season. It The Redskins mustered only 43 points off turnovers all of last season.

The first touchdown off a turnover Sunday came after Alexander plucked a Ponder fumble out of the air and returned it seven yards to the Minnesota 6-yard line. The Redskins scored on a pass from Robert Griffin III to fullback Darrel Young on the next play.