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It's been a long time, in more ways than one

Plenty of historical strangeness to this Packers-Steelers matchup

QB Aaron Rodgers
QB Aaron Rodgers

GREEN BAY – At the beginning of the week, it seemed like a fun idea to write about Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers facing the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time since beating them in Super Bowl XLV.

Then, in heading down the historical rabbit hole, it went from fun to downright odd.

First, the primary piece of context. Due to his collarbone injuries in 2013 and '17, Rodgers missed both of Green Bay's meetings with the Steelers those years, so Super Bowl XLV is his last contest against them, 10 years and eight months ago.

His only regular-season game against Pittsburgh came the year before, in Week 15 of 2009 at Heinz Field, and it was a doozy. Ben Roethlisberger threw a 60-yard TD pass to Mike Wallace in the opening minute and a 19-yard score to Wallace on the final play to surpass 500 passing yards in the game and pull out a dramatic win, 37-36.

In between, Aaron Rodgers threw for 383 yards and three TDs, ran for a score, and broke out his title belt celebration on national TV. As usual, his recall of the events from that day was impressive, beginning with a couple of early hits from blitzing linebacker Lawrence Timmons, which didn't impact his memory or his performance.

"I'll never forget those couple middle dogs they ran and getting drilled the first couple plays, for sure," Rodgers said this week.

"We were pretty explosive on offense. Hit Greg (Jennings) down the middle for I think it was an 85-yard touchdown (actually 83), then hit J.J. (James Jones) on a post late in that game to put us ahead. And then Big Ben took them down to beat us there right at the end. That was a good football game."

Indeed it was. So was the Super Bowl 13½ months later, of course, but that was the last time the two future Hall of Fame QBs, Rodgers and Roethlisberger, went head-to-head. Sunday will be the first time the two will take to the gridiron together at Lambeau Field.

"It is strange we've played just two times," Rodgers said.

But there's more strangeness.

Turns out, this is the first time Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur has prepared to face a Pittsburgh defense since 2012. That's all the way back to when he was Washington's quarterbacks coach, four NFL stops ago for LaFleur.

"Yeah, it's been a long time," he said. "It's rare. It's really rare."

The main thing LaFleur had to brush up on this week was personnel, though, not necessarily scheme. He's plenty familiar with the system, having worked for four years in Washington with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, a seasoned branch from the Dick LeBeau coaching tree.

LaFleur still sees many of the same rush and coverage principles, even if aspects have evolved over time.

"It's a great challenge, man," LaFleur said. "I watched all their sacks from the last two years and I think I got nightmares from it. They've got game-wreckers up front."

Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt are the two most notable, plus free-agent signee Melvin Ingram III looms as another edge threat. If Rodgers is on the lookout for "middle dogs" again (dogs is another term for blitzes, by the way), those would probably come from Devin Bush or Joe Schobert.

A Week 4 contest like this one won't have the implications of the December shootout from 12 years ago, which foreshadowed the Packers getting knocked out of the playoffs in a high-scoring affair three weeks later in Arizona (Pittsburgh lost an AFC wild-card spot on a tiebreaker that year).

But there could still be some history involved Sunday, which brings up the last of the oddities.

Because while everyone remembers the Packers beating the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, Green Bay hasn't beaten Pittsburgh in the regular season since … 1995.

Yeah, Dec. 24, 1995, the Yancey Thigpen game that fellow writer Wes Hodkiewicz witnessed in the Lambeau Field bleachers as a 7-year-old. Since then, the Steelers have won five consecutive regular-season meetings ('98, '05, '09, '13, '17), though they'd certainly trade them all for the postseason one the Packers took.

So that's where the rabbit hole ends, at least for now: 1995 and Thigpen's dropped pass. Wallace didn't drop it in '09, but that wasn't at Lambeau, nor on Christmas Eve (four days shy). Rodgers and Roethlisberger, who could be playing his last season, likely won't meet again unless it's in another Super Bowl.

So enjoy this one. How it fits into the whole package oughta be fun to discover.

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