EDMONTON - The Edmonton Eskimos will have one of their top defensive players back in the lineup today for a key West Division battle against Saskatchewan.
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Linebacker J.C. Sherritt will return after missing Edmonton's victory over Hamilton last week with knee and foot problems. The Eskimos are in the midst of a desperate push to gain some ground in the standings.
A victory at Commonwealth Stadium will move Edmonton within two points of the third-place Roughriders. A loss will likely leave the Eskimos fighting with Hamilton for the crossover playoff berth.
The Roughriders and Calgary Stampeders head into the weekend tied for second place in the West Division. Calgary holds the edge over the Riders because it has won the season series between the teams two games to one. The Riders would need a superior record than Calgary to move into second place and play host to a playoff game.
A Riders victory over the Eskimos today would clinch a playoff berth.
Halfback Chris Thompson is one of several defensive players who stepped up in Sherritt's absence. He was rewarded for his fine play by taking the latest defensive player of the week honours.
Every so often coaches will team up a veteran like Thompson with a rookie in key positions and the pair will find the desired chemistry. Their talents complement each other, their work ethics are similar and they develop the type of friendly rivalry that makes both of them better.
Such is the case with Thompson and rookie cornerback Joe Burnett.
When Thompson took this week's CFL honour, it gave them matching awards after Burnett earned the nod in Week 4.
"I told him, 'Congratulations, now I need one more,'" Burnett said with a smile this week. "It's a battle between us ... who's going to finish the season with the most interceptions, the most turnovers and yardage."
So far it's pretty much a toss-up.
The six-foot Thompson and five-foot-10 Burnett are enjoying similar seasons playing beside each other on the left side of the Edmonton defence. Both players have 39 tackles and are tied for the league lead with five interceptions entering play Friday.
Burnett has 167 return yards and two touchdowns while Thompson has 84 yards in returns. Thompson has forced two fumbles while Burnett has returned a fumble for a 44-yard touchdown.
Burnett has five knockdowns, one more than his teammate.
"We're making some plays over there," said Thompson. "He's a good young player who's making plays available to him. It's a process and we're still learning each other. We're going to keep on getting better."
Burnett agreed and said they are always talking to each other on and off the field, telling the other that they're playmakers with the ability to lock down their side of the field.
"I'm a young guy and he's been here for a while so I'm feeding off his energy," said Burnett, who signed as a free agent last year after two seasons in the NFL. "Feeding off his experience has helped me out. We do a lot of things together as far as coverage and things."
Thompson originally joined the Eskimos in 2007 as a free agent after two seasons in the NFL. He was traded to Hamilton in 2008 and was re-acquired in 2010.
Defensive co-ordinator Mark Nelson said he had high expectations coming out of training camp and while some of those have been met, there's still room for improvement.
"Chris is a smart player, very athletic, gifted in some aspects," he said. "I expected him to have a better year than in the previous, and he has. But he'll be the first to tell you I expect him to play better."
"Joe is a good player but he can play a lot better than he has," Nelson added. "He will be the first to tell you he has to improve. I'm not being mean or harsh, just honest. He does some really good things and he does some things that are not really good.
"We have to keep him working on the things he's not really good at. The things he's good at, those are God-given talents and we just need to keep polishing those."