Saved by an aggressive defense that enabled them to weather a fourth-quarter scare, and paced by a running attack that roared to life behind the contributions of forgotten man Ryan Torain, the Washington Redskins beat the St. Louis Rams, 17-10, Sunday afternoon at Edward Jones Dome.

With the victory, the Redskins enter their bye week as owners of both a 3-1 record and first place in the NFC East after Sunday afternoon losses by Dallas and Philadelphia, who are 2-2 and 1-3, respectively.

The Redskins have posted their best start since 2008, and could be unbeaten were it not for an 18-16 loss to the Cowboys a week ago, a game they easily could have won.

“At this point, I’d rather be 4-0. But it’s a long season and we’ve got to get over those things, and the key is to get better every week,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “. . . Each week we’ll be ready, try to get better every day, but we won’t get too carried away” with the 3-1 start.

The Redskins might not have had the opportunity to talk about 3-1 had it not been for Torain’s big day. Unused in the first three weeks of the season and replaced in the preseason as Washington’s workhorse after he broke his hand early in training camp, Torain made himself relevant again with starting running back Tim Hightower struggling in the first half.

Including a 20-yard touchdown late in the second quarter, Torain amassed 135 yards on 19 carries to lead a Redskins rushing attack that outgained the Rams, 196-45. Washington topped St. Louis in total yardage, 339-172.

“I could tell this week in practice that Tim wasn’t quite himself,” Shanahan said. “I don’t know if he was banged up, or what. And I thought [Roy] Helu looked very good. But Torain looked like he was on a different level. Maybe he was a little more fresh than the other guys, but you could see it yourself.”

Said Torain: “It was a very emotional game for me. Just wanted to get out there and play. Every single game, they’re always telling me to be ready, stay focused, keep working hard. I finally got that opportunity to get out there and make some plays.”

Despite their statistical edge, the Redskins needed a late-game stand by their defense to pull off the victory. Although the defense had rocked the Rams all game long, the Redskins gave their opponents life with two fourth-quarter interceptions.

Washington quarterback Rex Grossman threw a first-quarter touchdown pass, and Torain scored in the second. But the Redskins, who led 14-0 at halftime, managed only a field goal in the third quarter. They threatened the Rams early in the fourth, however, but Grossman threw his first interception — a third-and-11 pass from the St. Louis 26-yard line that went through the hands and off the chest of wide receiver Santana Moss and into the hands of Rams defensive back Justin King, who took the ball back 51 yards.

St. Louis eventually scored on a 32-yard field goal — its first points — and followed that up on the next possession with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford to running back Steven Jackson that cut the lead to 17-10 with 5 minutes 45 seconds left.

When the Redskins needed Grossman to march them downfield for some insurance points, the ninth-year veteran came out on first and 10 from his 20 and threw an interception to Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis.

On a play that looked very similar to the interception Grossman tossed deep in Dallas territory last Monday, the quarterback locked in on his receiver (Moss) and didn’t see Laurinaitis, who swooped in, plucked the ball out of the air and returned it to the Washington 19.

“It was our base, play-action pass in our game plan and with the hard play action, the [middle] linebacker stepped up,” Grossman said. “All I saw was a wide-open Santana Moss. . . . He made a great play and I’ve got to see that. I’ve got to anticipate that and not let that happen.”

Fortunately for the Redskins, the defense forced an incomplete pass and then got back-to-back sacks from defensive end Stephen Bowen and linebacker Brian Orakpo. Bowen finished with 11 / 2 sacks on the day, Orapko 21 / 2. That put St. Louis too far out of field goal range and forced a punt.

Another futile Redskins offensive series followed, but the defense again stepped up with a stand that included yet another sack – this time by end Adam Carriker. St. Louis’s final hopes faded when Bradford threw an incompletion on fourth and 13 from the 39 with just more than two minutes left.

On the day, Washington held the Rams to only 172 yards of total offense, sacked Bradford seven times — a season high for Washington — and forced one fumble. The Rams didn’t score a point until the fourth quarter, the first time since 2008 that the Redskins had gone seven consecutive quarters without yielding a touchdown.

“We were out there trying to get after it,” said Bowen, who recorded the first multiple-sack game of his career. “We had guys like [linebackers] Ryan [Kerrigan] and [Orakpo] making it easier for us. We noticed a couple things and the sacks started rolling in.”

With the defense having done its part, Torain provided another crucial run, picking up four yards and a first down on third and three from the St. Louis 31. From there the Redskins knelt to run out the clock.

“It’s definitely encouraging. There’s a mood around the whole team. We don’t have to go into the bye, hanging our heads,” said left tackle Trent Williams, part of an offensive line that did not surrender a sack. “Anytime you can win going into a bye it makes your vacation that much better.”