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NFL Schedule Promises to be Full of Surprises and Intrigue Leading Up to Start of 2011 Regular Season

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Just so we're all clear on the key dates that lie ahead prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2011 season opener at Baltimore, here's a rundown of the key dates to keep an eye on:

Saturday, Aug. 27: The Steelers will host the Atlanta Falcons at Heinz Field this Saturday night at 7:30 pm local time. To the best of my knowledge, the game will not be broadcast nationally. Which is too bad considering that the third preseason game is typically the one in which the starters see the most playing time.

Tuesday, Aug. 30: NFL rules require rosters to be trimmed down to 80 players by 4 pm EST.. In previous years, this round of cuts brought rosters down to 75, but with the addition of extra bodies to camps this year, the league bumped that number to 80 for rational reasons.

Thursday, Sept. 1: The Steelers conclude their preseason slate with a road visit to Carolina to take on Cam Newton and the Panthers. Key players usually are shelved for most, if not all, of the fourth preseason game. You may see Carolina play its young talent longer than in a 'typical' year, but a team like the Steelers won't feel any pressing need to risk injury in the name of getting inexperienced players as many reps as possible before the lights go on for real on September 11th.

Saturday, Sept. 3: NFL rosters must be trimmed down to 53 men by Saturday afternoon.Inevitably, reports will leak about which players around the NFL are about to meet a cruel fate, but the Steelers typically do a better job than most teams at keeping information in house before it's officially released. That said, expect Friday and early Saturday to be chock full of announcements about the final, tough decisions made by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin as they comply with league rules regulating roster size heading into the new season.

Buckle up, we've got a fun two weeks ahead of us before the real party gets underway.